The U.S. military apparently wants to get into the business of launching smaller satellites on smaller rockets. In the administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019, the Air Force budget contains a new “Rocket Systems Launch Program” item for the purpose of buying “small launch services” for the timely delivery of smaller payloads into low-Earth and geostationary transfer orbit.
The new program, which must be approved by Congress, provides $47.6 million in fiscal year 2019 and a total of $192.5 million over the next five years. It deals with the delivery into space of payloads weighing up to 8,000 pounds (about 3,600kg)—considerably less than the capability of an Atlas V or Falcon 9 rocket. This program comes just as several new US-based companies, including Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Vector, Stratolaunch Systems, and more have developed, or are in the midst of developing, small satellite launch boosters.
“Like the commercial and entrepreneurial communities, the government needs small satellites and dedicated small launch vehicles to provide affordable, responsive space capabilities,” Dan Hart, the chief executive of Virgin Orbit, told Ars. “This request is another important signal that the government is taking proactive steps to assure they can rapidly reconstitute and replenish critical space capabilities, which is something that the new generation of affordable, commercially developed launch vehicles are perfectly positioned to do. We are strongly supportive of this request.”
In recent years US military leaders have warned about the increasing potential for conflict in outer space—particularly the possibility of foreign actors destroying or deactivating US spy and communications assets in orbit. As part of its mandate for “assured access to space,” the Air Force would like the capability to rapidly launch replacement satellites that could fulfill some or all of the lost capability from such an attack. The Air Force justification for this new capability, first reported by Space News, reflects this need to rapidly redeploy assets in space.
“The current and future space domain demands that space systems be responsive to new and changing threats, and can rapidly integrate new capabilities to make our warfighting force more resilient in a contested battlespace,” the budget proposal states. “This agility, survivability, and rapid reconstitution must extend through the entire space warfighting enterprise, to include how we learn about the threat; develop solutions; acquire, test, deploy, train, operate and integrate new systems into the greater system of systems; and ensure our space mission force is ready to defeat a thinking adversary in a complex, multi-domain battlespace.”
The new breed of smaller rocket companies do not yet have the capability to launch 8,000 pound payloads, but are developing system that may eventually have the capability to launch that much on demand, and to almost any desired orbit. They are building these smaller, less expensive rockets at a time when the satellite industry is undergoing a period of rapid miniaturization.