Stargazer Flight Raises Questions

Stargazer aircraft carrying Pegasus XL rocket with CYGNSS satellite. (Credit: Orbital ATK)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Whenever I’m over at the Mojave Air and Space Port, I’ve always felt a little sad when I catch a glimpse of Northrop Grumman’s Stargazer aircraft.

The last Lockheed L-1011 Tristar still flying today, the modified passenger aircraft’s main task is to air launch satellites aboard the Pegasus XL rocket carried under its fuselage. Since the rocket isn’t much in demand, the gap between launches can last for years.

So, the vintage 1980’s Air Canada jetliner just sits there beside the control tower for months at a time, doing nothing and going nowhere, with its windows and engines all buttoned up to protect them against Mojave’s damaging winds and sand.

Things have changed over the last several months, however. Although there are no Pegasus XL flights on the manifest, I’ve heard Stargazer take off several times from Mojave using its three extremely loud engines.

Stargazer‘s trips away from its Mojave nest attracted little notice until Wednesday when the airplane made a flight that has everyone wondering what exactly it’s been doing up there.

As aerospace photographer Jack Beyer noticed that morning, Stargazer took off before sunrise not from Mojave but nearby Edwards Air Force Base.

Stargazer flew a race track pattern over the Pacific Ocean before returning to Edwards. The pattern, flown in a military test range, was similar to ones flown by Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl 747 aircraft earlier this year for that company’s LauncherOne satellite booster.

The Drive reports there was a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion patrol plane was flying nearby as the jetliner flew its race track pattern. It left the area at about the same time Stargazer headed back to Edwards. Whether the flight was coincidental is unknown.

The Drive also reports that Stargazer has been flying overland flights out of Edwards since at least June.

There’s no indication that anything was launched or dropped during the flight. However, the origin and timing suggest Stargazer was carrying something the military didn’t want people to see.

But, what? It’s possible Stargazer was conducting a captive carry test for an U.S. Air Force hypersonic vehicle. Or perhaps it was a launch vehicle other than Pegasus XL.

Whatever it was, nobody seems to be talking at the moment. At least Stargazer is getting some flight time in, which makes me feel a bit happier in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic lock down.