A recent KSC launch award to Orbital Sciences Corporation for a 2016 mission highlights just how expensive the Pegasus booster, once hailed as revolutionary, has become. The $55 million order for the air launched Pegasus for the CYGNSS mission is nearly what SpaceX is charging a commercial customer for the EELV class Falcon 9, and demonstrates why so many companies; Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Swiss Space Systems among many others, are now seeking to enter a smallsat launch business which is expected to see rapid growth.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is interested as well, having awarded Boeing a contract to develop an air launched rocket to be carried to altitude under the belly of an F-15. Awarded under the ALASA (Airborne Launch Assist Space Access) program, the goal is a price as low as $1 million to launch up to a 45 kg satellite.
But for the moment, apparently the Pegasus was the only choice.
According to the CYGNSS mission page, the flight will deploy 8 micro-satellites each weighing less than 20 kg into a 35 degree inclined orbit at an altitude of 500 km. The total injection mass is just 174.6 kg, well under the rocket’s capability.
In OSC’s defense, this is a NASA mission, which means it entails mission assurance in the form of added risk analysis instead of commercial insurance, but even so, for 8 microsats going into LEO, and an overall budget of $150 million, of which the launch costs are more than 30%, it may hard for some to accept at the same time NASA is shelving major programs as SOFIA and quite possibly the Opportunity Rover on Mars.
It also highlights the immense divide between NewSpace companies seeking to change the underlying dynamics of the launch industry, and the embedded costs of established products, even when they come from a company which is arguably on the fence like Orbital Sciences. In this case however, most of the Pegasus’s components come from ATK, a company not known for its NewSpace “creds.”
The launch award is below:
KSC News Release
NASA Awards Launch Services Contract for CYGNSS Mission
NASA has selected Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., to launch the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission. CYGNSS will launch in October 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a Pegasus XL rocket from Orbital’s “Stargazer” L-1011 aircraft.
This is a firm-fixed price launch-service task order contract worth approximately $55 million. Contract services include spacecraft processing, the launch service payload integration, tracking, data and telemetry, and other launch support requirements.
CYGNSS will produce measurements of ocean surface winds throughout the life cycle of tropical storms and hurricanes, which could help lead to forecasting weather better. The mission, led by the University of Michigan, will use a constellation of small satellites that will be carried to orbit on a single launch vehicle. CYGNSS’s eight micro-satellite observatories will receive direct and reflected signals from GPS satellites.
CYGNSS is the first award for space-based investigations in the Earth Venture-class series of rapidly developed, cost-constrained projects for NASA’s Earth Science Division. NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., manages the Earth System Science Pathfinder program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
NASA’s Launch Services Program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for management and oversight of the Pegasus XL launch services. Langley provides management for the CYGNSS mission.