Recycled Missiles Tapped to Launch Satellites

The United States is tapping an arsenal of decommissioned nuclear missiles to put science satellites into orbit.

THE GIST

Decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles are being used as launchers for science missions.

The Peacekeeper missile, repackaged as a Minotaur launcher, will loft a space debris monitoring spacecraft next week.

An upgraded Minotaur is due to launch a NASA moon probe in 2012.

The United States is bringing some of its decommissioned nuclear missiles out of retirement for a new mission -- launching satellites.

Next week, a refurbished intercontinental ballistic missile known as Peacekeeper is scheduled to put a space debris tracker into orbit for the Air Force. A beefier version of the booster is being developed to fly a NASA science probe to the moon in 2012.

In all, 54 decommissioned Peacekeeper motors have been earmarked for recycling, with nine motors already under contract for upcoming space launches or testing, according to the Air Force, which oversees the missiles-to-launchers program.

"What is neat is that what was once a military weapons system is now a peaceful use of government assets. It's the whole idea of turning 'swords into plowshares,'" said Barron Beneski, spokesman with Orbital Sciences Corp., which holds an Air Force contract to transform retired nuclear missiles into Minotaur space launch vehicles.

The first refurbished Peacekeeper missile, flying under the brand name Minotaur 4, flew in April on a suborbital mission to test a hypersonic glider. Next week's launch of the Space Based Space Surveillance satellite, which is designed to track orbital debris, will mark Minotaur 4's orbital debut.

Orbital Sciences has also flown lighter-weight spacecraft on another refurbished intercontinental ballistic missile called Minuteman. Both Minuteman and Peacekeeper missiles originally were designed to deliver nuclear warheads to targets in Russia. Peacekeeper missiles were decommissioned in 2007 -- 19 years after they were put into service -- as part of arms reduction agreements.

"It's one of those things that you're happy when they retire," Hans Kristensen, with the Federation of American Scientists, told Discovery News.

Minotaur launchers are for the government's use only. Orbital Sciences is prohibited from selling the rockets commercially since they contain government-provided missile components. Other countries, including Russia and China, have no such ban and openly market commercial boosters based on their surplus missiles.

"The Russians are doing a lot of that," said Wayne Eleazer, a retired Air Force officer who oversaw new launch vehicle programs at Cape Canaveral, Fla. "OSC (Orbital Sciences) can't sell a Minotaur to Brazil. That's still not allowed."

"It's obviously a very good deal for the U.S. government," added Beneski. "It's their assets. They own them. They ought to use them."