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.

  • Aerospike

    Wow, Vega looks like a bargain on this table compared the other offerings (unless you are willing to wait for other rockets to be developed or are fine with launching you stuff on Chinese rockets).
    Considering the growth of the small sat market, I have wondered for some time why Arianespace isn’t selling them by the dozens.

    Is it because Vega is still to big/powerful for the true “small sat” market?

  • Scott

    Amazing how the tables have turned in favor of OATK, 25 years ago Orbital Sciences was arguing *against* using surplus ICBM’s for small satellite launches because it threatened their new Pegasus launch vehicle.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    I thought they were going to retire Pegasus. Really, if OATK leaves the bottom end of the market to Firefly and Launcher One, then they should be able to compete against Vega and Long March.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    The prices in those tables are amazing high when compare to the bare bone SpaceX Falcon 9 price of $62M! The Minotaur-C looks really bad in price comparison with the Falcon 9 in the price per kilogram of payload lofted up like most of the launch vehicles listed in the tables. Bet everyone hope that SpaceX will not field a new small launcher.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    SpaceX don’t need to field a new small launcher, they are about to field reused first stages. Anyone north of $40 million can pack up and go home. Anyone above $30 million will want to pucker up over the next few years.

  • What is the M-OV (6th in the table?) Hadn’t heard of that one before. Also, shouldn’t the table include Rocketlab Electron, Vector and Generation Orbit launcher too?

  • windbourne

    Shortly, Vega may be way too costsly. If SpaceX can launch 13 tonnes for 40 M, then it means that something like vega will need to be below 10M to compete. And the rest???

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Disagree. Sometimes you need a small launch vehicle that can be set up in austere conditions with a small ground staff. Something along the lines of mobile V2 launch units of the Wehrmacht in WWII.

    IMO SpaceX can field a Falcon 9 upper stage variant as the reusable first stage of a small launcher that will be a fraction of the cost of a Falcon 9 with reusable first stage..

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “Disagree. Sometimes you need a small launch vehicle that can be set up in austere conditions with a small ground staff.”
    So what you are effectively saying is that a launcher, even though is were to cost many millions extra, could potentially be commercially successful as long as it requires less personnel to conduct the launch – from some undisclosed range and pad.
    Really not sure what you were thinking of by “austere conditions”, but can only think it equates to, the lowest possible cost. With the number of ground staff being only a small faction of the total cost, it doesn’t make much sense to concentrate on that detail. Furthermore, quite obviously, in the future ground staff will be replaced by automation. The largest contributors to cost are the combination of how many times a system can be used (i.e. re-used), how much it costs to maintain over its lifetime and how much it costs to manufacture.

    “…a fraction of the cost of a Falcon 9 with reusable first stage.”
    The launcher you should be thinking of is with both stages fully and rapidly reusable. The important point, the crucially important point, is that a launcher should be cheap, not that it should be small. Large (whatever that may mean) and reusable will be cheaper than, and beat, small and expendable.

    Of course, small and reusable might have the potential to be even cheaper. But factors such as requiring extra tank volume to retain fuel and useful payload mass fractions make going smaller ever more difficult for reusable systems. Also, economies of scale of production line manufacturing favour a more versatile launcher, i.e. a launcher with a wider range of payload capability, which by definition equates to the bigger the better.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    At $37 million, Vega is already perilously close to what SpaceX have suggested as the price for a reused F9. Potentially worse still, it isn’t yet clear whether that reused price is based on one reuse, or a first stage that can be used 10 times. If the first stage can be used multiple times the price may well drop further. And, the more market share SpaceX can grab, the more economies of scale will help them push down manufacturing costs. The “small sat” launchers down at or below $10 million look safe for now, but everyone else is in danger of having a failed business model. The good news is, that the more SpaceX (and BO) demonstrates the validity of reusable launch systems, the more likely it is that others will trend towards a similar way of thinking.

  • Aerospike

    Of course things are going to change soon if SpaceX successfully demonstrates first stage reusability, so Vega possibly came to late to the show.

    But compared to the other Launchers on the table it looks (soon looked) pretty good.
    Rockot is going to be phased put pretty soon, commercial payloads can’t be launched on Orbital ATKs Minotaur series because they use surplus military motors. Shavit and Epsilon don’t come close regarding performance and Shavit can only launch retrograde and Epsilon is slightly more expensive for roughly half the payload.
    That really only leaves the Chinese Launchers as a serious competition, and those come with their own set of (political) issues, at least for anybody in the US.

    But regarding future competition by SpaceX: While their reduces launch costs/prices will of course also affect the small sat launch market, I think there will still be a (small) market for dedicated small sat launchers.

  • numbers_guy101

    I am still of a mind this is just a bait and switch on the part of Orbital ATK.

    Step 1-Ask for a lift of the ban on surplus government rockets being sold so a private company can use them for private sector “commercial” launches

    Step 2-Make sure the terms of the sale make it impossible for anyone else to come along and buy the rockets, that it’s not just about the best bid to the government

    Step 3-Once purchased, get some government contract to test out how the rockets perform or some new technology addition works; use this to refurbish the rockets

    Step 4-Look for a government customer; say the price difference isn’t much but they can still brag about saving 5 million dollars vs. a larger rocket, or that they get their own ride vs. having to share

    Step 5-Repeat Step 4 indefinitely so long as it works; concurrently, find a congressional rep to direct the DoD buy these specific rockets to “support the emerging commercial space sector…specifically Orbital ATK…etc.”

    It’s so predictable. I’d think I time traveled and I’m just saying what I read in August 2021 on SpaceNews.