Pentagon’s ORS-1 Imaging Satellite Carried to Orbit

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WASHINGTON — The satellite, built by Goodrich ISR Systems of Danbury, Conn., and ATK Space Systems of Beltsville Md., was ready for launch in May, but the Air Force decided to take extra precautions with the Minotaur 1 launch vehicle, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. The Minotaur 1 shares some hardware with Orbital’s Taurus XL rocket, which in March suffered its second consecutive launch failure.

The ORS-1 satellite was placed into a 400-kilometer circular orbit at a 40 degree inclination, where it will circle the globe every 90 minutes and provide visible and infrared imagery to U.S. forces operating in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

The satellite, built by Goodrich ISR Systems of Danbury, Conn., and ATK Space Systems of Beltsville Md., was ready for launch in May, but the Air Force decided to take extra precautions with the Minotaur 1 launch vehicle, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. The Minotaur 1 shares some hardware with Orbital’s Taurus XL rocket, which in March suffered its second consecutive launch failure.

The first failure, a February 2009 launch attempt that destroyed NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, was blamed on a faulty payload fairing separation system. The system was redesigned and replaced, but it too failed to properly eject the two halves of the nose cone, dooming a second NASA climate research satellite — the $424 million Glory mission — in March.

The Minotaur 1 had a perfect record in nine launches leading up to the ORS-1 launch, and there were never any signs of a problem with its fairing separation system, said Lou Amorosi, Orbital’s vice president for the Orbital/Suborbital Program. However, to be absolutely safe, Orbital recommended and the Defense Department agreed to several minor changes to the rocket, Amorosi said during a June 24 media briefing. One software modification and one mechanical modification to the fairing separation system were instituted and fully qualified by independent reviewers before the launch, Amorosi said.

The ORS Office in 2008 was tapped to develop the ORS-1 satellite in response to an urgent need from U.S. Central Command. The Air Force Space Development and Test Directorate, serving as the acquisition agent, selected Goodrich in October 2008 as the prime contractor, and the satellite was put on an aggressive 24-month development schedule. Minor technical hurdles added six months to its development, but it was nonetheless a remarkable achievement for a first-of-its-kind spacecraft development, ORS Office Director Peter Wegner said during the briefing.

In order to shorten the development cycle, the team had to take on more risk, said Air Force Col. Carol Welsch, commander of the Space Development and Test Directorate. Programmatic decisions were made at the lowest possible level, and not all of the satellite’s components have spaceflight heritage, she said.

“Along the way, we’ve learned many lessons in the art of rapid spacecraft acquisition,” Welsch said. “Once ORS-1 is on orbit we will continue to learn how to more rapidly provide space capabilities.”

The satellite’s payload is a modified version of the Syers-2 imager that Goodrich developed for the U-2 high altitude surveillance aircraft. The concept of the mission is to utilize the existing U-2 tasking and ground processing infrastructure so that the source of the data is transparent to the user, Wegner said. The satellite will undergo a 30-day checkout and calibration phase before being handed over to the 1st Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.

Meanwhile, the Minotaur launch crew is working at full capacity to prepare for two more launches in the next three months, Amorosi said. In early August, a Minotaur 4 vehicle is scheduled to launch the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2B from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Then in September, a Minotaur 4-plus rocket is slated to launch the Naval Research Laboratory’s TacSat-4 experimental communications satellite from Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska.