Rare launch of Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus XL rocket happens over the weekend

Pegasus XL is an air-launched rocket capable of launching ~443kg to Low Earth Orbit. Northrop Grumman conducted a launch of this vehicle over the weekend on a mission for the Space Force. The satellite was named Odyssey and was designed to be a “Space Domain Awareness” Technology Demonstration.

First launched in 1990, Pegasus has been a smallsat launcher designed to be ready in a short time span. However, the rise of smallsat launchers from companies like Rocket Lab and Astra have brought Pegasus’s place into question.

Many believe this launch vehicle will not see many more flights before being shelved. The carrier aircraft for Pegasus vehicles is the L-1011 Stargazer, previously owned and operated by Air Canada and is the final L-1011 currently in operation. Stargazer has operated from a variety of locations, including Kennedy Space Center and Vandenberg Space Force Base.

The “Stargazer” L-1011 with the Pegasus XL vehicle at Vandenberg Space Force Base | Image Credit: Space Force/Northrop Grumman

Space Domain Awareness Exercise

The mission conducted by Northrop and the Space Force was labeled as a Space Domain Awareness exercise. This payload was designed with off-the-shelf components to reduce manufacturing time and to get to space quickly. The satellite was constructed in 4 months and then sat for an additional 6 months when a 21-day heads up was given to prepare for launch. Odyssey, the name of the satellite, was designed to track and characterize satellites and debris in orbit.

The launch occurred June 13th, 2021 at 4:11 AM EDT after taking off from Vandenberg Space Force Base. The official mission name was Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TaRL-2). Pegasus was dropped from the L-1011 at around 40 thousand feet and then proceeded to launch the TaRL-2 mission to orbit. The final orbit was determined to be a 251×280 mile high orbit with an inclination of 97.5 degrees.

Additional TaRL missions are expected in 2022 and 2023. Currently, no more launches are planned for Northrop Grumman’s vehicle and with cheaper options out there, this could have been the final flight of the world’s first privately funded orbital vehicle.

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