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Minotaur Rocket Orbits Missile Defense Agency Research Satellite

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. (Image credit: NASA.)

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

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

An initial countdown Mondaywas scrubbed by a ground support equipment problem.

The Minotaur's firstminutes of flight were powered by two left-over motor stages fromdecommissioned Minuteman 2 intercontinental ballistic missiles. They propelledthe rocket on the way to space before two additional solid-propellant stagesfrom Orbital's commercial air-launched Pegasus rocket program each fired toachieve the desired orbit of 135 by 245 nautical miles with an inclination of48.2 degrees to the equator. 

The 1,089-pound spacecraftwas deployed from the rocket about 9 minutes after liftoff, becoming the 25thsatellite deployed by Minotaur.

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

"Weare now focused on the three upcoming Minotaur launches in the second half ofthis 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 fromWallops late in the year carrying the Air Force's TacSat 3 spacecraft,"said Ron Grabe, Orbital's executive vice president and general manager of itsLaunch Systems Group.

The orbiting NFIREspacecraft will observe those future Minotaur 2 missile launches as a key partof its sensor research.

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

In addition to thededicated "fly by" imaging opportunities, NFIRE aims to takeadvantage of other targets, such as aircraft, rocket launches and other missiletests from a viewing distance of 60 to 600 miles.

Forest fires, volcanoes andground-based rocket engine tests are on NFIRE's observation list for thetwo-year mission as well.

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

The satellite's mainpayload is called the Track Sensor Payload. The secondary experiment onboard wasprovided by the German government to test laser communications for missiledefense applications, officials said.

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

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Justin Ray

Justin Ray is the former editor of the space launch and news site Spaceflight Now, where he covered a wide range of missions by NASA, the U.S. military and space agencies around the world. Justin was space reporter for Florida Today and served as a public affairs intern with Space Launch Delta 45 at what is now the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station before joining the Spaceflight Now team. In 2017, Justin joined the United Launch Alliance team, a commercial launch service provider.