The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is to highlight the Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3) and Rocket Cargo Vanguard programs at the 36th Space Symposium next week in Colorado Springs–a forum that will also mark the debut of SpaceWERX, the U.S. Space Force (USSF)-affiliated arm of AFWERX.
“With the recent standup of the USSF, along with the emergence of U.S. Space Command and new energy in the commercial space sector, we have exciting opportunities to modernize the way we lead and manage science and technology,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, the commander of AFRL, said in an Aug. 18 statement.
NTS-3 is to demonstrate next generation positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) technologies and to test reprogrammable software-defined receivers. Such technologies are to counter attempts by adversaries to jam PNT signals from GPS and other PNT satellites. L3Harris Technologies [LHX] is building the first NTS-3 for launch in 2023.
Rocket Cargo is the fourth and latest of the Department of the Air Force’s Vanguard programs. The Rocket Cargo science and technology effort is to explore the feasibility of delivering 100 tons of cargo anywhere on earth within an hour.
In June, AFRL said that it plans to issue a solicitation soon on a new Department of the Air Force Vanguard program–Rocket Cargo, a science and technology (S&T) effort to explore the feasibility of delivering 100 tons of cargo anywhere on the globe within an hour (Defense Daily, June 4).
The fiscal 2022 budget request contains $47.9 million for Rocket Cargo.
“The Department of the Air Force seeks to leverage the current multi-billion dollar commercial investment to develop the largest rockets ever, and with full reusability to develop and test the capability to leverage a commercial rocket to deliver AF [Air Force] cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity,” per the fiscal 2022 budget request. “The Air Force is not investing in the commercial rocket development, but rather investing in the Science & Technology needed to interface the capability with DoD logistics needs, and extend the commercial capability to DoD-unique missions. Provides a new, faster and cheaper solution to the existing TRANSCOM [U.S. Transportation Command] Strategic Airlift mission. Enables AFSOC [Air Force Special Operations Command] to perform current Rapid-Response Missions at lower cost, and meet a one-hour response requirement.”
TRANSCOM has also been mulling the possibility of rocket deliveries of a Boeing [BA] C-17’s worth of cargo and has planned to hold a proof of principle with SpaceX, likely with a variant of SpaceX’s two-stage Starship launch vehicle, as early as this year (Defense Daily, Oct. 7, 2020). Last year, TRANSCOM entered a cooperative research and development agreement with SpaceX and Texas-based Exploration Architecture Corporation.
While TRANSCOM has spoken of the rocket delivery concept as avoiding the diplomatic negotiations required for traditional access basing and overflight, rocket deliveries would come with their own drawbacks, such as making sure that other nations know that the deliveries are of cargo, not missiles.
In addition to NTS-3 and Rocket Cargo, AFRL plans to showcase other efforts at next week’s Space Symposium, including the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research Project (SSPIDR): Space Power Beaming project.
SSPIDR is to develop technology to build a solar power transmission system “for providing reliable and logistically agile power for expeditionary forces,” AFRL said.