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Lots of DoD Small Launchers, But What Will They Launch?

Posted by Theresa Hitchens on


The Rapid Space Launch Initiative, headed by the Air Force’s Rocket Systems Launch Program at Kirtland AFB, is the latest DoD small launch acquisition program.

WASHINGTON: Small satellite launcher projects are all the rage at DoD, but there aren’t many actual small satellites for them to launch. While there are numerous experimental satellites being designed and flown, there is no officially funded program aimed at designing, building and using smallsats for DoD missions.

“I think there’s been a long chicken and egg problem between small launch and small satellites” says Steve Nixon, president of the aptly-named SmallSat Alliance. “The traditional way is to attack them at the same time: do a little bit of both consecutively. We would like to see the national security side move out more aggressively, because there is lot of agreement about the value of small satellites.”

Indeed, part of the mission of the SmallSat Alliance, formed last year, is to help DoD figure out how it can “go beyond just experiments and begin to use small satellites for true operations.”

A DoD official admitted this week that right now it would be impossible to name a “program of record” for small satellites within the military services.

Part of the problem is that Air Force leadership has sent mixed signals on the level of interest in small satellites. The Air Force accounts for about 90 percent of DoD space spending.

Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson waxed decidedly noncommittal in a speech at the annual Space Symposium in April. Wilson said that an internal Pentagon study on future space architectures found that “exquisite satellites” (that is, large, expensive, and highly capable) are still a key DoD focus. (That study has not been released publicly.)

Air Force Space Command Vice Commander Lt. Gen. David Thompson, however, told a New America conference here in May that the Air Force will “definitely be using” large constellations of small satellites.

“The external and internal communication regarding [DoD] smallsat strategy is not consistent and not clear,” Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technologies, said somewhat wryly in a Tuesday interview.

Experiments Everywhere

At the same time, practically every space-related body within DoD seems to be experimenting with small satellites based in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) — or in Pentagonese, “proliferated LEO.”

One of the flagship programs underway is the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA) Blackjack program, designed to test small satellite constellations based on a Lego-like model of standardized bus designs with switchable payloads. While the Air Force has been planning to transition technology proven successful from Blackjack — called CASINO for Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations — to its own LEO-based constellation of smallsats, funding for that is uncertain.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright Patterson AFB long has developed smallsat-based experiments, such as the  Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX) spacecraft studying the affects of the Van Allen radiation belts on spacecraft components. The DSX was launched last week on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, along with 24 other small satellites under Air Force Space and Missile System Center’s (SMC) Space Test Program-2 mission.

The DoD Space Test Program (STP) has been around for decades, working to orbit Army, Navy and Air Force space experiments that are chosen by the DoD Space Experiments Review Board (SERB), chaired by the head of Air Force acquisition, Will Roper. SMC manages the STP program.

The Army, which has long been interested in the promise of small satellites for its tactical needs, has its own programs as well. The most recent effort is the Gunsmoke-L program started last year with a two-year (plus an option for a third), $8.3 million contract with Dynetics, based in Huntsville, Ala., to develop, test, integrate and demonstrate two “tactical space support vehicles.” The Army has built a series of the classified Gunsmoke satellites, dating back to at least 2017.

Further, my colleague Vivienne Machi last week broke the news that the Army is developing its first “tactical space layer” strategy that could include satellites in LEO for communications; position, navigation, and timing (PNT) and battle management command and control (BMC2) missions.

The Navy, in November 2018, launched its ICE-Cap (Integrated Communications Extension Capability) nansosatellite to demonstrate the ability of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to expand the coverage of its Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) narrow-band communications satellite  network to the polar regions.

But none of these test projects are slated to transition to formal programs, with formal budgets, and formal military missions.

Proliferating Launch Initiatives

Meanwhile, there is enormous industry buzz in the small launch vehicle market, including about the potential for DoD contracts.

Christensen said one of the reasons small launch vehicle vendors around the world are increasingly looking at governments as potential customers is that the commercial market is simply not going to be able to support all of them. Based on market history and future trends, she explained, not all the thousands of smallsats being proposed (or even already licensed) will actually be deployed; even some of the companies that manage to orbit some smallsats will fail; and once a company actually manages to become economically viable, the size of its satellites is likely to grow.

But rather than being concerned about the disconnect between DoD’s eagerness to on-ramp commercial launch capability and the lack of real DoD smallsat programs, Christensen believes DoD is doing the right thing by moving out to try to harness the capability for responsive launch. (Responsive launch, the ability to launch practically on demand, has been a Holy Grail for the Pentagon for more than a decade. See Operationally Responsive Space.)

“I really feel like this slight disconnect of market dynamics is creating a really good opportunity to take advantage of emergent systems and determine if they have applicability to future military of IC [Intelligence Community] needs, for much cheaper than starting from scratch and building internal DoD programs.”

There are at least three significant DoD programs seeking to validate smaller launchers for future military use.

STP is partnering with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) on the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI). RALI is designed to leverage DIU’s expertise in open sourcing by rapidly awarding DoD launch service agreements with non-traditional, venture-class companies.

Last week, the truly non-traditional startup SpinLaunch announced it has become the latest winner of a  DIU contract under that initiative. The contract (for an unspecified amount) is to prototype SpinLaunch’s ground-based, kinetic energy launch system that functions as a kind of centrifugal force catapult to heave a small rocket carrying a satellite out of the atmosphere.

A SpinLaunch fact sheet explains that the launch system uses “existing technology and components from oil/gas/mining and wind turbine industries to construct an innovative mass acceleration system, which achieves very high launch speeds without the need for enormous power generation or massive infrastructure. After ascending above the atmosphere, a relatively small, low-cost onboard rocket will be used to “provide the final required velocity for orbital insertion.” 

The RALI program’s first launch was in May, when New Zealand startup Rocket Lab successfully lofted three small experimental satellites into LEO. It included the Army’s Harbinger, a commercial small satellite built by York Space Systems in Denver, to “demonstrate the ability of an experimental commercial system to meet DoD space capability requirements.”

DARPA’s Launch Challenge in April awarded $400,000 to each of three companies chosen to demonstrate “flexible and responsive” launch of small payloads. Tucson-based Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit, and a “stealth” startup now are competing for prizes up to $10 million for proving they can successfully launch twice in a row — from any launch facility chosen by DARPA — within a short timeframe. As a next step, the competitors early next year will be asked to launch a payload to LEO within two weeks from one of eight predetermined sites — after receiving notice of the launch site only a few weeks prior, and exact details on the payload and intended orbit just days before. One of the goals is to demonstrate that DoD can contract backup launches if one of its few fixed launch facilities is put out of commission by either an accident or an attack.

Todd Master, the program manager for the DARPA Launch Challenge, told me that DARPA is busy with preparatory work in the run up to the actual launch-off planned for early next year. This includes, he says, working with the Federal Aviation Authority to ensure that the commercial licensing process is smooth, given the “challenges” the project presents to the FAA’s normal launch licensing process. “They’ve been a great partner,” he said, adding that DARPA sees the Launch Challenge as “hopefully laying the ground work for streamlined licensing processes that could work in the future” to help DoD acquire commercial space launch capabilities.

And yet another new Air Force small launch effort, called the Rapid Space Launch Initiative (RSLI), was kicked off in late May by SMC’s Rocket Systems Launch Program based at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico. The RSLI request for proposals says that the Air Force is “investigating the possible procurement of a capability to rapidly launch and deploy space payloads critical to national security in an ultra-responsive manner. The objective is 24 hours from “call up” notification to on-orbit capability.”

That project seeks to demonstrate  rapid space launch capabilities to LEO “on a small scale,” with “the intended payload” an “Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) class space vehicle or smaller with a mass up to 220kg.” The RFI, however, notes that “demonstrated solutions that can scale to orbits and payloads of national security value are also of great interest. The program intends to hold an industry day in El Segundo, Calif., July 29-30.

What do you think?