Pegasus launches ICON space science mission

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — An extended-delayed NASA area science satellite tv for pc lastly reached orbit Oct. 10 on a Pegasus rocket, a launch car with an unsure future.

The Pegasus XL rocket was launched from its L-1011 provider plane at 9:59 p.m. Japanese off the Florida coast and ignited its motors to ascend to orbit. Its payload, the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, was launched from the higher stage in low Earth orbit about 11 minutes after ignition.

NASA scheduled the launch for 9:30 p.m. Japanese however a communications glitch shortly earlier than the deliberate launch led to a half-hour delay. NASA scrubbed a launch try Oct. 9 hours earlier than the airplane’s takeoff from Cape Canaveral due to poor climate within the space.

These delays, although, pale compared to points with the Pegasus rocket that delayed its launch by about two years. That included a case the place the rocket’s rudder place indicator turned lively, however solely whereas the rocket was connected to the plane at cruise altitudes.

“We noticed some issues on our earlier launch try that none of us had been comfy with, and we determined to face down and go tackle these,” mentioned Phil Joyce, vice chairman of area launch packages at Northrop Grumman Innovation Programs, at a pre-launch briefing Oct. 8. That earlier launch try, additionally primarily based out of Cape Canaveral, was in November 2018.

Joyce described the problem with the rocket as “some of the difficult that I’ve seen.” He mentioned the rudder on the rocket’s first stage confirmed “noise spikes” in its place indicator, solely at altitude. “We didn’t perceive these, however they had been important sufficient that we had been involved if, we launched with that situation current, that these noise spikes may couple into our management system and trigger a nasty day.”

He mentioned that the issue could possibly be linked to “a number of causal elements” that the corporate addressed by modifying electronics within the rocket in addition to making a suggestions circuit extra strong to the environmental circumstances of flight. That was examined on a number of captive carry flights, together with a ferry flight from Vandenberg Air Pressure Base in California to Cape Canaveral, giving Northrop and NASA confidence they’d resolved the issue.

The ICON launch was the forty fourth Pegasus mission within the rocket’s almost three-decade historical past, but in addition solely the fourth launch within the final 10 years. Regardless of the rising curiosity in small satellites, for which Pegasus was designed to launch, the car has solely been used lately for a handful of NASA science missions.

Even that restricted enterprise is now in jeopardy. In July, NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX for the Falcon 9 launch of the Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) astronomy mission, a smallsat that had been designed to be appropriate with the Pegasus XL rocket. The worth of the Falcon 9 IXPE contract was $50.2 million, lower than the $56.4 million worth of the 2014 contract NASA awarded for the ICON launch on a Pegasus XL, regardless that the Falcon 9 is a far bigger car.

On the pre-launch briefing, Joyce acknowledged that the corporate has no future missions on the Pegasus XL manifest. He did notice there are two Pegasus rockets at Vandenberg “in a reasonably superior state of integration” which can be obtainable. “We’re speaking to a number of potential prospects for these,” he mentioned.

These two rockets, business sources say, had been being constructed for Stratolaunch, the enterprise backed by the late Paul Allen that deliberate to launch Pegasus rockets from the large plane it developed. That airplane flew a single take a look at flight in April, however the lack of exercise since has fueled hypothesis that the corporate could also be winding down.

The 288-kilogram ICON satellite tv for pc will research the interplay between area climate and terrestrial climate within the ionosphere that might enhance modeling of area climate exercise. “It’s this area the place these two climate methods, area climate and terrestrial climate, are mixing collectively,” mentioned Nicola Fox, director of NASA’s heliophysics division, on the Oct. 8 briefing. “It’s actually, actually essential for us to go perceive that.”

Regardless of the delays, Fox mentioned that the mission remained with its value cap of $252 million. NASA didn’t make main modifications to ICON throughout the prolonged launch delay, however she mentioned the mission ought to profit from information from different, complementary missions collected throughout this time. “If something,” she mentioned, “we’re a bit extra enthusiastic about ICON goes to deliver to us.”

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