NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) satellite has been successfully launched following an almost two-year delay.
The ICON satellite was launched aboard a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket at 01:59 UTC this morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Unlike traditional launch vehicles, the Pegasus is carried to an altitude of 11,900 meters (39,000 feet) aboard a carrier aircraft. Once at altitude, the rocket is dropped with ignition following five seconds later.
NASA had originally scheduled the launch of ICON for 01:30 UTC. However, a loss of communication between ground teams and the carrier aircraft forced a delay.
“When your launch pad is moving at 500/600 miles per hour, things happen,” said Omar Baez, launch director in NASA’s Launch Services Program. “The first attempt got us because we lost positive communication with the aircraft and the ground, and our rule is to abort the flight and go back around and try it again. And we were able to execute it flawlessly.”
This morning’s delay, though, is a drop in the ocean compared to the nearly two-year delay the mission suffered due to problems with the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket.
The most recent major delay followed a scrubbed launch attempt in November 2018. Speaking at a pre-launch briefing on October 8, the vice president of space launch programs at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, Phil Joyce revealed the company had been forced to scrub the mission due to an issue with a rudder on the rocket’s first stage.
“We saw some things on our previous launch attempt that none of us were comfortable with, and we decided to stand down and go address those,” said Joyce. That particular problem forced a near one-year delay and compounded an already delayed scheduled.
The launch of ICON was the 44th aboard a Pegasus rocket over a nearly three-decade tenure. It was also, however just the fourth launch in the last ten years despite the growth of the smallsat market, for which it was designed to serve. Additionally, Northrop Grumman has been unable to attract commercial customers for the rocket and is having to rely on a handful of NASA missions, which seem to now be in doubt.
In July, the contract to launch NASA’s IXPE satellite, which had been designed to be carried aboard the Pegasus was awarded to SpaceX. Despite the Falcon 9 being significantly larger and more capable than the Pegasus, SpaceX was able to undercut the cost of a launch aboard the smaller vehicle by almost $6 million.