Orbital ATK’s Small Satellite Launch Vehicles Facing Increased Competition

A Minotaur V rocket carrying NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lifts off from at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. (Credit: NASA/Chris Perry)
A Minotaur V rocket carrying NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lifts off from at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. (Credit: NASA/Chris Perry)

Recently, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle over the use of surplus intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) to launch satellites. Orbital ATK would like to lift the ban on using them to launch commercial satellites, the U.S. Air Force would like to find a way to sell the engines, and an emerging commercial launch industry that doesn’t want what it considers government-subsidized competition.

Now, you’ve probably been wondering a few things. What does Orbital ATK do with these engines? What does it launch on them? And what launch vehicles are in operation or in development to compete with these boosters?

Those are all great questions. And now the answers.

Orbital ATK has a family of Minotaur launch vehicles that are derived from decommissioned Minuteman II and Peacekeeper ICBMs. Components from the Pegasus air-launched booster, which Orbital ATK developed on its own, are used in the Minotaur line.

The table below shows Orbital ATK’s stable of small satellite launch vehicles. Only the Minotaur VI+ has yet to fly. The Minotaur-C was formerly known as the Taurus XL.

ORBITAL ATK SMALL & MEDIUM LAUNCH VEHICLES
LAUNCH VEHICLELEO (kg/lbs)
GTO (kg/lbs)
SSO
(kg/lbs)
MTO
(kg/lbs)
TLI
(kg/lbs)
ESTIMATED PRICE PER LAUNCH
Pegasus450 (992)N/A325 (717)N/A N/A$40 Million
Minotaur I580 (1,279)N/A331 (730)N/AN/A$40 Million
Minotaur VN/A532 (1,173)N/A603-650 (1,329-1,433)342 (754)$55 Million
Minotaur VI+N/A860 (1,896)N/A 980 (2,161) 560 (1,235)Undisclosed
Minotaur C1,278-1,458 (2,814-3,214)N/A912-1,054 (2,008-2,324)N/AN/A$40-$50 Million
Minotaur IV1,600 (3,527)N/A1,190 (2,624) N/A N/A$46 Million

Under law, the Minotaur rockets cannot be used for commercial missions. As a result, they are primarily used by government agencies for selected missions. For example, NASA launched its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) orbiter to the moon aboard a Minotaur V in 2013.

In arguing to lift the ban on commercial launches, Orbital ATK officials have said the company has missed on opportunities to launch satellites to foreign competitors over the past 10 years. Supporters of maintaining the current policy said lifting ban would hurt entrepreneurial companies developing new rockets.

Orbital ATK’s boosters range in price from $40 to $55 million, raising questions as to their long-term competitiveness. SpaceX, for example, charges $62.1 million for its much more powerful Falcon 9 booster.  The company has talked about lowering the price to $40 million for reused versions of its rocket.

Meanwhile, Orbital ATK faces competition both from existing and planned launch vehicles.  The table below shows Orbital ATK’s small-satellite launch vehicles (in blue) with other rockets that are operational or in development with similar payload capacities to low Earth orbit.

SMALL CLASS LAUNCH VEHICLES
LAUNCH VEHICLELEO (kg/lbs)
GTO (kg/lbs)
SSO
(kg/lbs)
STATUS
ESTIMATED PRICE PER LAUNCH
Kuaizhou (China)300 (661)N/AN/AOperationalUndisclosed
Super Strypi (USA)320 (705)N/A275 (606)DevelopmentTBD
Firefly Alpha (USA)
400 (882)N/A200 (441)Development$8 Million
LauncherOne (USA)400 (882)N/A225 (496) DevelopmentLess than $10 Million
Pegasus (USA)
450 (992)N/A325 (717)Operational$40 Million
M-OV (USA)454 (1,001)N/AN/A DevelopmentUndisclosed
Minotaur I (USA)
580 (1,279)N/A331 (730)Operational$40 Million
Long March 11 (China)700 (1,543)N/A350 (772)OperationalUndisclosed
Athena IC (USA)760 (1,676)470 (1,036)N/A DevelopmentUndisclosed
Minotaur V (USA)
N/A532 (1,173)N/AOperational$55 Million
Shavit (Israel)350-800 (772-1,764)N/AN/A OperationalUndisclosed
Minotaur VI+ (USA)
N/A860 (1,896)
N/ADevelopmentUndisclosed
Epsilon (Japan)700 -1,200 (1,543-2,646)N/A450 (992)Operational$39 Million
Minotaur C (USA)
1,278-1,458 (2,814-3,214)N/A912-1,054 (2,008-2,324)Operational$40-$50 Million
Long March 6 (China)1,500 (3,307)N/A1,080 (2,381)OperationalUndisclosed
Naga-L (China)1,550 (3,417)N/A620-820 (1,367-1,808) Development$10 Million
Kuaizhou-11 (China)N/AN/A1,000 (2,205)Development$10 Million
Minotaur IV (USA)
1,600 (3,527)N/A1,190 (2,624)Operational$46 Million
Vega (Europe)1,963 (4,328)N/A1,430 (3,153)Operational$37 Million
Rockot (Russia)1,820-2,150 (4,012-4,740) N/A1,180-1,600 (2,601-3,527) Operational$41.8 Million

A few things to note about the table:

  • operational launch vehicles are defined as having had at least one successful flight;
  • all boosters shown can lift less than 2,000 kg to LEO except for the Russian Rockot, which has a slightly higher payload limit; and,
  • launch vehicles under development that are capable of lifting less than 300 kg to LEO are now shown.