Minotaur Rocket Orbits Missile Defense Agency Research Satellite
The Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) satellite launches spaceward for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency from a succesful liftoff from the Mid-Atlantis Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.
Credit: NASA.

A data-gathering research satellite for the U.S. missile defense program successfully launched into space from the Virginia coast aboard an Orbital Sciences Minotaur 1 rocket early Tuesday.

The Missile Defense Agency's Near Field Infrared Experiment, or NFIRE, spacecraft lifted off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island at 2:48 a.m. EDT (0648 GMT).

An initial countdown Monday was scrubbed by a ground support equipment problem.

The Minotaur's first minutes of flight were powered by two left-over motor stages from decommissioned Minuteman 2 intercontinental ballistic missiles. They propelled the rocket on the way to space before two additional solid-propellant stages from Orbital's commercial air-launched Pegasus rocket program each fired to achieve the desired orbit of 135 by 245 nautical miles with an inclination of 48.2 degrees to the equator. 

The 1,089-pound spacecraft was deployed from the rocket about 9 minutes after liftoff, becoming the 25th satellite deployed by Minotaur.

It marked the 13th Minotaur program flight since 2000, including seven missions using the Minotaur 1 satellite-launching version and six suborbital Minotaur 2 missile test boosters flown for the military.

"We are now focused on the three upcoming Minotaur launches in the second half of this year, including two Minotaur 2 long-range target vehicles scheduled for (Missile Defense Agency) flights this summer from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and another Minotaur 1 mission scheduled to be launched from Wallops late in the year carrying the Air Force's TacSat 3 spacecraft," said Ron Grabe, Orbital's executive vice president and general manager of its Launch Systems Group.

The orbiting NFIRE spacecraft will observe those future Minotaur 2 missile launches as a key part of its sensor research.

"The primary mission of the NFIRE satellite is to collect high and low resolution images of a boosting rocket to improve understanding of exhaust plume phenomenology and plume-to-rocket body discrimination," the Missile Defense Agency says.

In addition to the dedicated "fly by" imaging opportunities, NFIRE aims to take advantage of other targets, such as aircraft, rocket launches and other missile tests from a viewing distance of 60 to 600 miles.

Forest fires, volcanoes and ground-based rocket engine tests are on NFIRE's observation list for the two-year mission as well.

"The MDA will use this data to validate and update the models and simulations that are fundamental to missile defense applications. A secondary objective of the experiment is to collect hyper-temporal short wave infrared and visible data for assessing early launch detection and tracking capability," according to the agency.

The satellite's main payload is called the Track Sensor Payload. The secondary experiment onboard was provided by the German government to test laser communications for missile defense applications, officials said.

"This mission has been in the works for almost five years now, and it was impressive to watch the rocket fly into the night sky," said Col. Sam McCraw, Minotaur/NFIRE mission director and Space Test Group commander from Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

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