U.S. Air Force Taps MIT’s Lincoln Lab for ORS-5 Mission

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s rapid response military space office will ask the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to design and build a satellite to bridge a potential gap in on-orbit space surveillance capabilities, according to a July 30 press release from the service. According to the release, the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, based at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, will ask Lincoln Labs to build an operational demonstration of the SensorSat satellite to scan the geosynchronous-orbit belt from low Earth orbit. The program is expected to start in 2016 and launch in 2017.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told a House panel in April that a planned ORS-5 mission would be a technology pathfinder for a follow-on to the current Space Based Space Surveillance satellite. That mission, which keeps watch on the geosynchronous-orbit belt 36,000 kilometers above the equator, is expected to end around 2017.

The Air Force recently asked Congress for permission to redirect $25 million in fiscal year 2014 funds to help pay for the ORS-5 launch. “The funds are required by September 2014 to initiate the launch source selection in time to support a 1st quarter of FY 2017 launch,” the reprogramming request said.

In a posting to the Federal Business Opportunities website in April, the Air Force described a launch capability for ORS-5 that fits in the performance envelope of several small U.S. rockets including Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Pegasus XL and Minotaur 1 — the latter is based in part on excess U.S. ICBM assets — and the Lockheed Martin-ATK Athena 1C, a variant of a vehicle that last flew more than a decade ago.