Minotaur IV Launches ORS-5 Satellite: What’s the Deal With the Secondary Payloads?

The Minotaur IV Space Launch Vehicle is an adapted MX or Peacekeeper solid fuelled ICBM for delivery of satellites into low earth orbit, and a Minotaur IV was launched for the first time from Cape Canaveral on August 25 (not be confused with inaugural flight). The first three stages of the Minotaur IV are MX ICBM motors.

The video of the launch appears below. Note the speed of launch. Immediately below the Minotaur IV is a cold silo launch of an MX ICBM.

I’m more interested in the payload of the August 25 launch, which consisted of a main payload and a secondary payload or better still secondary payloads. The first payload consisted of the ORS-5 satellite, the objective of which is to temporarily fill a gap in the space situational awareness network. The ORS-5 will track satellites and space debris in geostationary orbits given that the Space-Based Space Surveillance Satellite, which has performed this mission is coming to the end of its service life. The ORS-5 will perform this role, and act as a demonstrator of technologies, until the proper replacement for the SSBS is developed and deployed.

We all know about the Minotaur IV launch and we all know about the ORS-5 payload, but not many know of the secondary payloads. These are three CubeSats, one of which is a 3U CubeSat to be operated by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

CubeSats are nanosatellites (1-10kg) of standard size (multiples of 10X10X10) and form (cubic), and are often the unheralded secondary payloads of space missions. One of their functions is to serve as science and technology demonstrators and that’s especially the case for 3U+ CubeSats. Presumably, that is what the DARPA 3U CubeSat above is designed for.

The size, operator and purpose of the other two CubeSats are classified. We simply don’t know, and they may be technology demonstrators somehow related to the militarisation or even, at the outer edge of speculation, the weaponisation of space. One can see how CubeSats might serve as good technology demonstrators for military space purposes. Consider the mission at hand. We focus on the ORS-5 primary SSA related payload, but totally neglect the CubeSat secondary payloads.

It is somewhat ironic that a primary payload consisting of a space situation awareness related asset should be accompanied by CubeSat secondary payloads, given the concern in some quarters that the proliferation of CubeSats will greatly add to the problem of space debris.

What are the three CubeSats for, and which agency is operating the other two? We might get an idea one day, when whatever technology they’re demonstrating comes to fruition.