Image credit & copyright: NASA.
Launch Alert: Monday, December 12, 2016 at 08:19 EST (13:19 UTC) Orbital ATK’s L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft wearing its new blue Orbital ATK colors will air launch its partner, the Pegasus LX rocket which will be carrying 8 CYGNSS satellites for NASA.
Confused yet? Let’s take a step back and unpack this.
Orbital ATK Pegasus XL Rocket: is a 3-stage, 17.6 m (58 ft.) long, 1.27 m (4.2 ft.) diameter, air-launched, winged rocket capable of placing small satellites (up to 1,000 lb. or 450 kg) into orbit from anywhere on Earth. To date, it has conducted 42 missions, delivering 86 satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO).
It’s secured to the bottom of the L-1011 Stargazer mothership aircraft where it’s carried to an altitude of 40,000 ft. (12,000 m) and released from Stargazer. After a 5 second freefall, the first stage ignites and the payload is on its way to orbit in about 10 minutes.
With its maiden flight on April 5, 1990, Pegasus was the first launcher developed in the U.S. in more than 20 years. It was also the first air-launched rocket to deliver satellites into orbit and was also the first winged vehicle to accelerate to Mach 8.
Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer Mothership Aircraft (N140SC): is a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar (construction #1067) aircraft that’s been reconfigured to carry and air-launch the Pegasus XL rocket. Stargazer’s first meeting with Pegasus was Pegasus XL’s maiden flight on June 27, 1994 and has carried it ever since. Prior to that, the Pegasus rocket was carried by the legendary “Balls 8” NB-52B mothership. Stargazer was also tasked with captive carry flights of the hypersonic X-34 vehicle although it conducted no air-launches.
Stargazer began its life 1974 as Air Canada passenger aircraft C-FTNJ and later obtained by Orbital Sciences in 1992 where it received the N140SC registration. In 2015, Stargazer changed colors from Orbital Sciences red to Orbital ATK’s blue.
Current and Future Comparisons:
In short, the Stargazer-Pegasus XL duo works in a similar fashion to Scaled Composite-Virgin Galctic’s WhiteKnightOne-SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightTwo-SpaceShipTwo as air-launched vehicles though no orbit is achieved with these.
In the future, Virgin Galactic will air-launch satellites into orbit via LauncherOne already named “Cosmic Girl,” a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 that will have a rocket secured under the left wing.
In addition to that, Paul Allen of Microsoft fame among many other areas, especially in the sciences, also has a space company named Vulcan Aerospace. Vulcan will also have an air-launched vehicle known as Stratolaunch and this bird is big. In fact it will have the largest wingspan of any in history and is already in development by Scaled Composites. As of now, Stratolaunch will be launching multiple Pegasus XL rockets per-flight.
NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS): No not Orbital ATK’s Cygnus re-supply ship; this mission will launch NASA’s CYGNSS satellite system developed by the University of Michigan. It’s a group of eight satellites that will measure the wind speed over Earth’s oceans to better understand and predict hurricanes.
NASA CYGNSS Mission Pages & Information:
NASA CYGNSS Mission: https://www.nasa.gov/cygnss
NASA CYGNSS Press Kit: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/cygnss_presskit.pdf
NASA CYGNSS Fact Sheet: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/cygnss-fs-2015-05-230-larc.pdf
NASA CYGNSS Blog: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/fromthefield/category/cygnss/
Pegasus & Flight 43 Information:
Orbital ATK Social Media:
Orbital ATK homepage: https://www.orbitalatk.com/