Under the Space Test Program (STP), the U.S. Space Force on July 2 launched seven DoD research and development satellites to low Earth orbit from Virgin Orbit’s [VORB] 747-based LauncherOne rocket at Mojave Air and Space Port, Calif.
“The nighttime mission, designated STP-S28A, demonstrated commercially available solutions to place Space Force satellite capabilities on-orbit, providing flexibility and resiliency for the Space Force and warfighter requirements in an increasingly contested environment,” Space Force’s Space Systems Command said in a July 2 statement.
Last Friday’s STP launches from LauncherOne are the first in a series of three that are to loft 44 small satellites into orbit under a $35 million contract awarded in April 2020 (Defense Daily, Apr. 13, 2020).
Lt. Col. Jonathan Shea, the STP director, said in a statement that such “cost effective space access is key” to Space Force’s “pivot to a more resilient space architecture.”
Virgin Orbit said that last Friday’s launches marked the company’s first nighttime demonstration of Virgin Orbit’s responsive launch capabilities and that the launches began at 10:50 p.m. and ended two hours and five minutes later.
“The launch reached an orbit approximately 500km above the Earth’s surface at 45 degrees inclination,” Virgin Orbit said. “This was Virgin Orbit’s second time reaching that inclination – an orbit that no other system has ever reached from the West Coast.”
The seven satellites “are from multiple government agencies and will facilitate experiments intended to demonstrate innovative spacecraft technologies, new approaches for satellite applications, and Earth atmospheric science,” Virgin Orbit said.
One of the seven satellites was the Recurve cubesat by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) space vehicles directorate at Kirtland AFB, N.M., per AFRL.
Kate Yoshino, the Recurve program manager, said in a July 6 statement that Recurve is to demonstrate adaptive radio frequency (RF). Recurve “will validate a cognitive RF system able to perform in-situ adaptive decision making,” AFRL said.
“This advanced technology will enable Recurve to assess an inherent positioning, navigation and timing capability under various operating and environmental conditions,” per Yoshino.
Recurve, which is to remain in orbit for up to a year, is also to evaluate “mesh network behavior across multiple nodes in multi-domain applications, bringing information to wherever the warfighter is located,” AFRL said.
Another of the seven satellites to be launched on July 2 was federally funded research and development center Aerospace Corp.’s Slingshot 1, a cubesat “that fast tracks the development of modular and autonomous technologies by leveraging the potential for open standards and non-proprietary interfaces,” Aerospace Corp. said.
Slingshot 1 has 19 payloads, including the key one, Handle, a USB-like enabler to speed the integration of various payloads on the satellite; Vertigo, “a reconfigurable attitude control system that enables satellites to find targets on Earth; Blinker, a GPS transponder for space traffic management; HyPer, a hydrogen peroxide thruster delivering high performance for small satellites; and LaserComm, a next-generation space-to-ground laser communications downlink,” per Aerospace Corp.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill believe that responsive commercial satellites and commercial launches could help the U.S. military reconstitute constellations of military satellites when adversaries disrupt their functions during conflicts or before them (Defense Daily, July 26, 2021).
Such responsive launch may become useful, if a critical U.S. satellite sustains damage and becomes inoperable.
Space Force and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) are increasingly using commercial satellites to provide a breadth of coverage and to ensure that an adversary is unable to disable U.S. infrastructure and leave military forces, intelligence agencies, and national leaders in the dark.
On July 5, Rocket Lab USA [RKLB] said that its next two Electron rocket launches on July 12 and July 22 will be responsive space missions for the NRO.
“The NROL-162 and NROL-199 missions will carry national security payloads designed, built, and operated by the National Reconnaissance Office in partnership with the Australian Department of Defence as part of a broad range of cooperative satellite activities with Australia,” Rocket Lab USA said. “The satellites will support the NRO to provide critical information to government agencies and decision makers monitoring international issues.”
Rocket Lab USA said that the missions are the third and fourth company missions for the NRO under the agency’s Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) “NROL-151 (RASR-1) was successfully deployed to space on a dedicated Electron launch in early 2020, followed by RASR-2 on another Electron launch in June 2020,” per Rocket Lab USA.
In June last year, Space Force launched a Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) technology demonstration satellite from a Northrop Grumman [NOC] Pegasus XL rocket (Defense Daily, June 15, 2021).
The latter, carried on a modified version of the company’s “Stargazer” L-1011 aircraft from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., delivered the satellite to orbit in the early morning of June 13 last year.
Space Force’s Space Safari program office, which is to integrate mature technologies quickly to respond to needs, supported TacRL-2 as the office’s first mission.
Section 1605 of last year’s fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act stipulated that DoD and the office of the Director of National Intelligence submit a report with the fiscal 2023 budget request on planned improvements for the tactically responsive space launch program to include lessons learned from TacRL-2 and “how to incorporate such lessons into future efforts regarding tactically responsive launches.”