Space: August 27, 2003

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What began as a military project (launching satellites or satellite killers from high flying aircraft) has turned into a private satellite launching company.  Orbital Sciences Corporation uses a modified L-1011 airliner to launch 25 ton Pegasus three-stage rockets. This way, a 900 pound satellite can be put into a 185 kilometers high orbit, or a 400 pound satellite into an 800 kilometers high orbit. With electronics becoming smaller and more powerful, you can pack a lot of useful stuff into a lightweight satellite. For $20-25 million, a Pegasus booster has been putting these lightweight, but expensive ($50-100 million) satellites into orbit for the last seven years. Pegasus has an 86 percent success rate (30 out of 35 launches) and is doing four launches a year. Other countries are working on duplicating this technology, since they now know that it will work consistently. This approach to launching satellites is not only cheaper than the traditional booster, but more flexible. The L-1011 launcher aircraft can be flown to anywhere on the planet to obtain precise orbits (which some satellites require) that can only be easily obtained by launching the rocket from a specific location.

 


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