Rocket Lab, VOX Space to Launch USAF Small-Sat Missions This Year

Small satellite launch company Rocket Lab launches NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites-19 mission in New Zealand on Dec. 16, 2018. Photo courtesy of Rocket Lab and Trevor Mahlmann.

Small satellite launch provider Rocket Lab will launch three experimental Air Force research satellites this month as part of the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI), a partnership between the Pentagon’s Space Test Program and the Defense Innovation Unit.

The spacecraft will head to low-Earth orbit on Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle during the company’s fifth orbital mission and its heaviest launch to date.

“The three experiments onboard will demonstrate advanced space technologies and accelerate the fielding of future operational space capabilities,” Rocket Lab said April 3. “The Space Plug-and-Play Architecture Research CubeSat-1 mission, sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate, is a joint Swedish-United States experiment to explore technology developments in avionics miniaturization, software defined radio systems, and space situational awareness. The Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment, sponsored by the United States Air Force Academy, will evaluate ground-based tracking of space objects.”

Another Army-sponsored satellite named Harbinger, built by York Space Systems, will show whether an experimental commercial system can meet military-grade needs in space.

The Space Test Program offers “the opportunity to take more risk than with high-value national security satellites,” making them ideal missions for new launch providers and vehicles, according to the Air Force. Similarly, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center looks to RALI as an example of successful agile contracting and launches.

“This initiative leveraged DIU’s knowledge of commercial technology companies, enabling the DOD to competitively and rapidly award launch service contracts with non-traditional, venture-class launch providers,” Rocket Lab said. “The mission demonstrates Rocket Lab’s ability to provide responsive space access for US government missions.”

Rocket Lab has put 25 satellites in space so far and builds a new Electron rocket—which is roughly 56 feet tall and can carry small payloads up to about 500 pounds—every month. It plans to ramp up from monthly to biweekly launches next year.

A second RALI mission, dubbed “STP-27VP,” was handed to Virgin Orbit subsidiary VOX Space, which uses a LauncherOne rocket fired from a Boeing 747. Lt. Col. Andrew Anderson, who runs the Space Test Program Branch, told reporters on an April 3 call the mission will take place later this year but did not say from where.

“Initial flights will be out of Mojave Air and Space Port [in California] with other sites in discussion,” the Air Force said. “STP-27VP will be the third flight of LauncherOne.”

Rocket Lab, VOX Space, and a third unnamed “emerging” launch company will handle five launch missions spanning 21 satellites. The Air Force didn’t initially seek funding for the program in its budget, but Congress provided $15 million to get it started. Today, the program costs about $25.6 million.

SMC has eight launches on tap for 2019, after a lone mission last year and four in 2017. Up to five launches this year will be RALI missions, plus a test booster for NASA’s Ascent Abort-2 mission, the Pentagon’s first mission with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket for the STP-2 payload, and a National Reconnaissance Office mission.

“The market is still shaking out here and we’re trying to participate in it” to see how many providers and missions it can bear, Col. Robert Bongiovi, head of the launch enterprise systems directorate, said on the call. “Certainly in the small class, that’s going to be very useful. … For a long time, we’ve had limited commercial industry out there but as we saw the commercial industry coming, the advanced systems directorate here at SMC got out in front of that.”

Bongiovi wants to progress past the ability to use those companies for experiments and reach a point where they can launch more prototypes and fully operational systems.