NASA’s latest satellite launch didn’t start on a rocket pad. It started on a runaway. The eight satellites making up the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, or CYGNSS, launched from a Pegasus XL rocket dropped by a modified L-1011 Stargazer aircraft nearly 100 miles off the coast of Florida.

Pegasus in mid-air

A NASA F-18 chase plane provided the incredible footage of today’s launch.

Stargazer dropped the eight satellites from 39,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. After five seconds of freefall, the Pegasus XL rocket ignited. About 13 minutes after Stage 1 ignition, the eight satellites began deploying 500+ kilometers above Earth.

“The deployments looked great – right on time,” said John Scherrer, CYGNSS Project manager. So far, the launch looks fantastic. “About three hours after launch we’ll attempt first contact, and after that, we’ll go through a series of four contacts where we hit two [observatories] each time, checking the health and status of each spacecraft,” Scherrer added.

Every part of the mission could not have performed better. From the weather to the vehicles. “We had a nominal flyout, and all three stages performed beautifully,” said NASA Launch Manager Tim Dunn. “We had no issues at all with the launch vehicle.”

Each of the eight satellites is right where the CYGNSS team wants them to be.

What is CYGNSS?

CYGNSS will be the latest tool helping scientists understand and predict hurricanes. The satellite constellation will measure wind speeds over the tropics. Instead of using a technique called scatterometry, the satellites will use GPS technology to keep tabs on wind speeds in hurricane hot zones.

Using the new satellites, scientists will be able to peer into the middle of a hurricane and better determine the strength at landfall.

Why the different launch?

Why not launch from a traditional rocket resting on a launch pad? The biggest reason is cost. Orbital ATK’s Pegasus system was designed with keeping costs low in mind. The lower cost means the small satellite community can afford the trip to orbit.

NASA isn’t saving money at just launch either. The eight satellites don’t have their own propulsion systems. But that doesn’t mean each satellite can’t slightly tweak its orbit. Even at their orbital altitude, there are enough air molecules to create drag. Each of the satellites can alter the way their solar panels are facing to slow down.

Launching from 39,000 feet keeps costs down across the board. From the expenses tied to a rocket pad to the amount of fuel needed to reach the desired orbit. Plus, the launch system has been extremely reliable in recent years. Since 1996, every Pegasus launch has been a successful (29 consecutive launches).


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