First TacSat launch delayed till March

The planned January debut of the Defense Department's first tactical microsatellite has been postponed at least a month, according to the vendor building a new, low-cost rocket to launch it.

The TacSat payload hasn't yet left the Naval Research Laboratory, said Gwynne Shotwell, vice president of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of El Segundo, Calif. "This is our very first launch," she said, and the delay is not because of the payload but because of final engine tests of the $6 million, 70-foot Falcon I rocket.

Arthur Cebrowski, chief of the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation, and Peter Teets, Air Force undersecretary and head of the National Reconnaissance Office, have championed TacSat as the cornerstone of future battlefield reconnaissance and surveillance.

Individual commanders could control the microsatellite's sensors and cameras via the Secret IP Router Network.

NRL designed the TacSat to orbit at 500 kilometers, or 300 miles. Besides responding to SIPRnet control, it is supposed to demonstrate automatic geolocation with other air and space assets.

The Falcon I rocket that will launch the microsatellite arrived in October at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., towed on a trailer that raised it vertically at the launch pad.

"That was a big milestone," said Dianne Molina, a spokeswoman for the 2-year-old SpaceX. She said the rocket can be lowered again later to mount the TacSat payload.

The Falcon I burns liquid oxygen and kerosene and has a recoverable launch stage with a built-in parachute to slow its descent into the Pacific Ocean.

According to a November reliability study conducted for SpaceX by Futron Corp. of Bethesda, Md., the two-stage Falcon I design has an expected failure rate of 1.78 percent, lower than for Atlas V and Delta rockets and the space shuttle.

The study examined about 60 launch vehicle designs over the last 20 years using both solid and liquid fuels. Futron found that propulsion system problems were responsible for more than half of all failures. The second most common cause of failure was faulty separation during the launch stage.

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