Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Big Step for Small Space Missions

At 0700 EST today, a Minotaur rocket lifted off from Wallops Island, VA, carrying two experimental satellites. This flight is interesting for several reasons.
First, the Minotaur is based on a converted Minuteman ICBM, which makes it the most economical operational launcher now available in the U.S. (SpaceX's Falcon 1 will be less than half the price, at $6.9M, but has yet to fly successfully.) The total mission cost was given at $60M, including the booster, both satellites, and $621,000 for range costs.
Second, this launch marks a return to orbital missions for Wallops. NASA fired Scout orbital boosters from this location for many years, but it's been two decades now since Wallops was used for anything larger than suborbital (sounding) rockets.
Third, the payloads are milestones in the use of small spacecraft. The larger is the Air Force's sensing and communications experiment, TacSat-2. Riding along is NASA's GeneSat-1, a three-kilogram microsat carrying bacteria whose development will be studied in orbit.
Finally, there is the commercial aspect of the launch. The launch pad used was leased from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.
Congratulations to all the people and agencies who made this historic flight a success.

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