Cold-War-era missile launches three modern-day spy satellites


A Minotaur rocket launches the NROL-111 mission on Tuesday.
Enlarge / A Minotaur rocket launches the NROL-111 mission on Tuesday.

Trevor Mahlmann

For the first time in nearly eight years, a Minotaur 1 rocket launched into space Tuesday from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket, which is derived from Cold-War-era surplus missiles, carried three classified satellites into orbit for the US National Reconnaissance Office.

This was the first launch of the four-stage Minotaur 1 rocket since a demonstration mission for the Air Force in 2013, which also orbited 23 CubeSats. Although the current mission was delayed for more than two hours by poor weather on Tuesday morning, it successfully launched at 9:35 am ET (13:35 UTC).

The Minotaur 1, which has the capacity to launch a little more than 500 kg into low Earth orbit, is a mix of decades-old technology and modern avionics. The vehicle’s first and second stages are taken from a repurposed Minuteman I missile, the first generation of land-based, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles. These missiles were in service from 1962 to 1965 before they were phased out in favor of the Minuteman II and Minuteman III missiles. The latter ICBMs are still in silos today.

To configure the Minotaur 1 rocket for satellite launches, engineers added two additional stages based on Orion solid rocket motors. These orbital rockets are now built and launched by Northrop Grumman. In addition to the Minotaur 1 vehicle, the company also supports the larger Minotaur C and Minotaur IV launch vehicles based on Peacekeeper missiles.

The small rockets are not cheap. This Minotaur I launch cost the Air Force $29.2 million when it procured the rocket for the National Reconnaissance Office in 2016. By contrast, Relativity Space, Firefly, and ABL Space are all developing rockets more capable than the Minotaur 1, with about 1 metric ton of lift capacity, at a fraction of its cost.

However, the Minotaur line of vehicles has a reasonably good success rate as well as versatility, having launched from Alaska, California, Florida, and Virginia. The US military values this kind of reliability and the operational readiness of a solid-motor rocket.

Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, chief of the Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise’s Small Launch and Targets Division, said in a statement that she is looking forward to future launches from Northrop Grumman: “This success continues to reinforce that the Launch Enterprise has multiple paths to rapidly acquire agile launch services for small satellites and will continue to take advantage of the latest in small launch technologies.”

As for the top-secret payloads launched Tuesday, it’s a good bet they are spy satellites of some sort. The National Reconnaissance Office is charged with a “mission of providing critical information to every member of the Intelligence Community, two dozen domestic agencies, our nation’s military, lawmakers, and decision makers.” So they’re probably reading this article—from space.



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