Orbital Sciences Corporation [ORB] recently said that the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) recently ordered the first Minotaur V launch vehicle under the company’s Orbital/Suborbital Program-2 (OSP-2) contract.

The Minotaur V rocket will propel NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) probe on a trajectory to enable it to orbit the Moon. The Air Force’s Space Development and Test Wing (SDTW), located at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, administers the OSP-2 contract. The program office is responsible for all Minotaur vehicles for the Launch Test Squadron (LTS) of SDTW.

The company’s new order brings the total number of Minotaur launch vehicles procured by the U.S. Air Force, including space launch and target vehicles, to 28 since the inception of the program in 1997. It also represents the first order of a Minotaur V rocket designed to launch U.S. government satellites into higher-energy orbits for missions related to space exploration and other activities beyond low-Earth orbit.

“We are pleased to support NASA and the Air Force for this exciting mission to Earth’s Moon,” said Mr. Lou Amorosi, Orbital Vice President and Program Director of the Minotaur product line. “The Minotaur V launch vehicle was designed exactly with missions such as LADEE in mind, using both government-supplied and commercial rocket motors to provide highly reliable and affordable launches for high-energy and escape-trajectory missions.”

LADEE is a NASA probe that will orbit the Moon to characterize the atmosphere and lunar dust environment and determine the global density, composition, and time variability of the lunar atmosphere before it is perturbed by further human activity. The mission is currently scheduled for launch in May 2012 from Wallops Island, Virginia.

Minotaur V is a five-stage space launch vehicle capable of launching satellites weighing up to 650 Kg (1,425 lbs.) to geosynchronous transfer orbit or over 400 Kg (900 lbs.) to trans-lunar and other Earth-escape trajectories. The rocket’s first three stages consist of retired Peacekeeper rocket motors while its fourth and fifth stage motors are commercial Star 48 and Star 37 motors, respectively.

Orbital has launched a total of 16 Minotaur vehicles with a perfect mission success record, beginning with the inaugural mission in January 2000. Eight of the missions have been carried out by the Minotaur I space launch vehicle (SLV) configuration and eight by the Minotaur II suborbital target launch vehicle (TLV). Currently, there are 11 additional Minotaur missions on Orbital’s upcoming launch manifest, including the inaugural launch of the Minotaur IV rocket, scheduled to boost the Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite into orbit for the Air Force later in 2009.