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Pegasus Rocket Launches Satellite to Predict Communication Outages

NASA Tracks Navigation Errors, Fuel Shortage in DART Rendezvous Mission
An Orbital Sciences-built Pegasus XL rocket successfully orbited NASA's autonomous DART spacecraft on April 15,2004 during an air-launch staged from a Stargazer L-1011 carrier aircraft flying over the Pacific Ocean. (Image credit: NASA TV.)

An experimental Air Forcesatellite designed to monitor the Earth's ionosphere and foresee impendingcommunication disruptions was successfully deployed into space Wednesday by anOrbital Sciences air-launched Pegasus rocket.

An L-1011 carrier jethauled the winged rocket over the mid-Pacific Ocean at the U.S. Army's ReaganTest Site in the Kwajalein Atoll, then released the booster at approximately1:01 p.m. EDT (1701 GMT) to begin an eight-minute ascent to orbit.

The three-stage rocketsuccessfully delivered the Communication/Navigation Outage Forecasting System(C/NOFS) spacecraft into an elliptical orbit with a high point of about 525miles and a low point of 250 miles, with an inclination traveling 13 degreesnorth and south of the equator.

"Everything wentextremely well," Col. Stephen Hargis, director of the DoD Space TestProgram, said in a post-launch telephone interview from Kwajalein.

The launch marked the 25thconsecutive successful flight for the Pegasus over the past decade.

"Pegasus continues toprove that it ss the most reliable and versatile small launcher in the worldtoday, with another successful mission supporting an important Air Forceprogram," said Ron Grabe, Orbital's executive vice president and generalmanager of its Launch Systems Group.

From its orbit hugging theequator, the C/NOFS satellite and its onboard instruments will measure the spaceenvironment to increase warning times for conditions that cause outages ofultra-high frequency (UHF) communications and degrade GlobalPositioning System navigation signals.

"There's a lot of keyareas in the equatorial region that our warfighters have to live and besuccessful in, and they cannot have a situation where their GPS and UHF commsare going out on them without them knowing it," Hargis said.

"So this system willhelp improve the forecasting of those outages by approximately four-to-sixhours more time."

The disturbances in theionosphere are called scintillations. C/NOFS will be the first space-basedsystem to predict when such disruptions of critical communications may occur.

"It will help both inan adversarial and defensive way, in also knowing the enemy's comm andnavigation could possibly be out due to these scintillations," programmanager Capt. Pamela Jessen said from Kwajalein.

"Ibelieve C/NOFS will have a huge impact on the battlefield and help bring moreof our troops home alive," Hargis said.

C/NOFS is a joint projectof the DoD Space Test Program, Space and Missile Center's Space Development andTest Wing and the Air Force Research Laboratory. General Dynamics built thesatellite.

"It is an experiment,so AFRL is going to be running the payload, receiving the data and processingit and passing that to the warfighter," Hargis said.

Controllers plan to spendthe next month checking out the satellite before a 12-month data collectionmission commences to determine if the satellite instruments can help forecastthe onset of the communication outages.

The combined cost of thesatellite development and construction, the Pegasus rocket and the 13 months ofin-space operations total about $135 million, Hargis said.

It was a long road to getC/NOFS assembled and launched. Original plans called for the craft to flyseveral years ago.

"The biggest challengewe had a few years back was a solar panel design issue that caused the needingto go back and redesign and rebuild the solar panels. So that slowed down theprogram," Hargis said.

"The technologicalchallenge on the spacecraft was these instruments are very, very sensitive toRF noise and radiation. So you have to design a satellite that is very, veryquiet in terms of RF. That was a big technical challenge of the program.They've overcome everything and it's on-orbit now."

Wednesday's launch was the39th for the Pegasus rocket and the second to originatefrom Kwajalein. The mobility of the air-launched booster has enabledOrbital to conduct flights from various sites, including Edwards Air Force Baseand Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Kennedy Space Center and CapeCanaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia andGran Canaria of the Canary Islands off Africa.

The C/NOFS satellite was builtin Gilbert, Arizona, then delivered to Vandenberg where it was attached to thePegasus rocket at Orbital's facilities there. The rocket was mated to theL-1011 aircraft and flown to Kwajalein about 10 days ago.

The far-away Kwajaleinlocation, known for its role as a missile test range, was selected as thelaunch site because of its proximity to the equator and the targeted orbit forthe C/NOFS satellite.

"It takes a couple ofdays to get here and it's not easy to get in and out of the island. But onceyou're here, the Reagan Test Site has just been fantastic, everything weneeded," Hargis said.

The next scheduled Pegasusmission will use Kwajalein too. A July 15 launch is planned for NASA'sInterstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX satellite, that will study theinteraction between the solar wind and the interstellar medium.

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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.