The U. S. Space Force on June 13 launched a Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) technology demonstration satellite from a Northrop Grumman [NOC] Pegasus XL rocket.
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.
Stargazer released the three-stage Pegasus about 40,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, and the rocket’s first stage ignited to carry the TacRL-2 satellite to low Earth orbit (LEO).
Such responsive launch may become useful, if a critical U.S. satellite sustains damage and becomes inoperable.
“Tactically responsive launch, as a concept, seeks to introduce speed, agility, and flexibility into the launch enterprise in order to respond to dynamic changes in the space domain or an operational theater and insert or replace assets on orbit much faster than standard timelines to meet emerging combatant command requirements,” Space Force said.
“Today’s successful launch is a clear signal to our strategic competitors that we will not cede access to space,” U.S. Space Force (USSF) Chief of Space Operations Gen. John“Jay” Raymond said in a statement. “When I challenged the Space and Missile Systems Center [SMC] about a year ago to demonstrate a responsive space capability, they accepted and delivered. The team presented an integrated Space Domain Awareness satellite ready for launch in record time. What normally would have required two to five years, took 11 months.”
Congress added a budget line for Tactically Responsive Launch in the fiscal 2020 Defense Appropriations Bill and funded TacRL at $19 million in that legislation. The fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act led to the creation of the Space Force in December, 2019.
Raymond said in the June 13 statement that “the space domain is defined by speed” and that Pegasus “demonstrated the kind of speed it will take to win.”
“We executed a ‘21-day call-up’ to get a satellite on orbit – pulling the payload, mating it with the rocket and integrating the combined package onto the aircraft,” he said. “Agile, responsive capability development, combined with our ability to rapidly launch and insert capabilities into space where we want, when we want, will deny our competitors the perceived benefits of beginning a conflict in, or extending a conflict to, space.”
Space Force said that SMC’s new Space Safari program office, which is to integrate mature technologies quickly to respond to needs, supported TacRL-2 as the office’s first mission.
“The USSF will use this information to improve upcoming TacRL missions with the Space Safari office planned to launch in 2022 and 2023,” Space Force said. “Tactically Responsive Launch is the first step toward the USSF acquiring a tactical space mobility and logistics capability to support combatant command’s future requirements for tactical spacepower.”
Space Force has had other similar efforts underway. Last year, USSF awarded Virgin Orbit subsidiary VOX Space a $35 million contract to launch three dedicated missions using its LauncherOne rocket to deliver 44 small satellites to LEO (Defense Daily, Apr. 13, 2020).