The Pentagon’s Space Test Program is partnering with several non-traditional small launch providers to send five advanced research-and-development payloads into low Earth orbit (LEO) this year, Air Force officials said April 4.

The Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI) has awarded five launch missions to three launch providers scheduled for 2019, which will send 21 satellites into space for $25.6 million, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate said Wednesday.

Rocket Lab successfully launches R3D2 satellite for DARPA on its Electron launch vehicle. (Photo: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab USA, a privately owned small satellite launcher, will deliver the first mission next month, while VOX Space, a subsidiary of Virgin Galactic, is slated to take the second mission, Air Force Lt. Col. Andrew Anderson, chief of the DoD Space Test Program Branch, said in a media call that day.

The first mission, dubbed STP-27RD, will lift off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand aboard the companies “Electron” two stage orbital expendable launch vehicle, Anderson said. An AFSMC strategic communications plan document viewed by Defense Daily states that the Space Test Program and Rocket Lab are eyeing April 15 for initial launch capability, with a two-week launch window.

The first RALI mission will include three DoD science and technology experiments, including a joint experiment between the United States and Sweden, an Air Force Academy space experiment and a technology demonstration sponsored by the Army Space and Missile Defense Center.

Rocket Lab successfully launched a prototype reflect array antenna to orbit for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on March 29.

The second mission, dubbed STP-27VP, will utilize Virgin Orbit’s “LauncherOne” rocket, which is air-launched from a 747 mothership dubbed “Cosmic Girl,” Anderson said. The system can operate from various locations, and initial flights will take place from Mojave Air and Space Port, California, with other sites to be determined. The mission launch will be LauncherOne’s third flight, per AFSMC.

Anderson declined to provide more details regarding launch windows or location, stating only that the launch is scheduled before the end of this calendar year. He also declined to name any other launch providers that could be involved in future launches this year.

These two first missions were procured by the Space Test Program in partnership with Defense Innovation Unit, Anderson said. “We leveraged DIU’s knowledge of commercial technology companies and their commercial solutions offering process to competitively and rapidly award launch service contracts with non-traditional launch providers,” he said.

The RALI program was launched via a congressional plus-up to the STP’s fiscal year 2017 budget to procure “venture class small launch vehicles” to fly R&D payloads. That funding has grown to over $25 million, Anderson noted.

The Defense Department’s Space Test Program is part of AFSMC’s Space Development Corps and is based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.