The Royal Air Force (RAF) is joining the small-satellite wave and intends to launch its first such spacecraft in late December, an RAF official said Oct. 27.
The RAF satellite, Carbonite-2, will be equipped with an electro-optical camera to provide full-motion video, said Air Vice-Marshal “Rocky” Rochelle, the RAF’s chief of staff for capability and force development. The spacecraft was built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., whose majority owner is Airbus.
Carbonite-2 is a "demonstrator" that will help the RAF iron out plans for a constellation of 13 small satellites with electro-optical and infrared sensors and synthetic aperture radar, said Rochelle, who spoke on Capitol Hill at an Air Force Association (AFA) breakfast. Such satellites appeal to him because they are relatively inexpensive and can be easily reassigned to other missions.
The constellation "is ambition, it's vision, it's aspiration," Rochelle said. "But if we can do that ourselves in the UK and we can do that within three years from now, that would be great."
Rochelle said the RAF is also studying options for launching small satellites quickly in the run-up to a conflict. RAF does not plan to launch enough satellites to sustain a launch provider, so it would need to partner with a commercial entity. The RAF is considering both vertical and horizontal launch capabilities.
"I want to be able to walk through the door and go ... 'we're launching today,'" he explained.
The RAF has several other efforts underway to improve what it can do in space. It is pursuing a new ballistic missile defense radar that will have “inherent” space situational awareness capabilities, Rochelle said. The RAF is also supporting the development of a space cadre.
To encourage “disruptive thinking,” the RAF recently set up a rapid capabilities office (RCO) similar to the U.S. Air Force’s RCO, Rochelle said. The RAF’s RCO has 25 people, about a tenth of the size of the U.S. Air Force's RCO workforce.
Rochelle also said he hopes to create a British entity comparable to the AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies think-tank.