WASHINGTON – Orbital ATK has won a $23.6 million contract to launch a small space-surveillance satellite for the U.S. Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office aboard a Minotaur 4 rocket in 2017.
Orbital ATK will launch the satellite from Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, according to a spokeswoman at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.
The launch will mark the first for a Minotaur rocket, a vehicle based in part on excess missile hardware, from Cape Canaveral and the first from that particular pad since 1999.
Space Launch Complex 46 was licensed as a commercial launch facility in 2010 by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The last launch from the facility was of Lockheed Martin’s solid-fueled Athena 1 rocket, which carried Taiwan’s Rocsat-1 Earth observation satellite.
Last year, Space Florida, a state-managed organization that promotes the use of Cape Canaveral’s infrastructure, selected Orbital ATK to upgrade communications systems at Space Launch Complex 46, hoping that the improvements would attract commercial and government business. In a February request for qualification to improve the pad, Space Florida said it had identified a potential tenant, a prime contractor for launch systems, for the site.
The Minotaur 4 is one of the larger variants in the Minotaur family, which makes use of excess ballistic missile motors to launch small to medium-sized satellites.
The ORS-5 space surveillance satellite, also known as SensorSat, is being built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to scan the geosynchronous-orbit belt from low Earth orbit.
Tentatively slated to launch in the second quarter of 2017, ORS-5 has been touted by the Air Force as a potential bridge between the Space Based Space Surveillance Block 10 satellite, currently on orbit, and a proposed trio of new, smaller space surveillance satellites that are not expected to launch before 2021. From its low Earth orbit vantage point, the Block 10 satellite keeps tabs on objects in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the equator, home to critical U.S. communications and missile warning satellites. It is expected to reach its end of life about 2017.
In its launch services solicitation for ORS-5 last year, the U.S. Air Force said the vehicle must be capable of putting the 80- to 110-kilogram satellite into an equatorial orbit with an altitude of 600 kilometers.
The Air Force had hoped to launch ORS-5 for $20 million, but Col. John Anttonen, director of the Operationally Responsive Space Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, told SpaceNews earlier this year that no existing launch service provider could meet that target.
“We went out and asked industry: ‘Can you meet $20 million?,’” Anttonen said. “A lot of the new space vendor concepts that are out there came back and said yes. But they have never built a rocket yet. The folks that have built the rockets or done the rideshares came back said we can’t meet it but only because you’re going to a highly unique orbit. You’re going to zero degrees. They came back and said we can do $30 million. We said all right. Not bad. It’s an improvement over where we were.”
Orbital ATK was the only company to submit a bid, according to a July 2 announcement from the Defense Department..
The ORS office is familiar with the Minotaur 4. In 2011, the rocket was used to launch the Navy’s experimental Tactical Satellite-4 communications satellite from the Alaska Aerospace Development Corp.’s Kodiak Launch Complex.