WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s Operationally Response Space (ORS) Office is seeking information on potential launch service providers for a small satellite that the U.S. Air Force has characterized as a potential augmentation for existing U.S. space surveillance capabilities.

“The ORS Office is seeking capability statements from those interested launch service providers that have a proven launch vehicle that is capable of meeting the performance and cost goals,” the office said April 15 on the Federal Business Opportunities website. “A proven launch vehicle is one that has achieved placing a payload into orbit prior to the ORS-5 launch and can present post flight the performance achieved.”

ORS-5, tentatively slated to launch in 2017, has been touted by the Air Force as a potential gap-filler between the Space Based Space Surveillance Block 10 satellite, currently on orbit, and a successor that is not expected to launch before 2021. From its low Earth orbit vantage point, the Block 10 satellite keeps tabs on objects in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the equator, home to critical U.S. communications and missile warning satellites.

The launch vehicle must be capable of placing ORS-5, which is expected to weigh between 80 and 110 kilograms, into an equatorial orbit with an altitude of 500-700 kilometers, the solicitation said. The office is seeking a dedicated launch for a total cost of less than $20 million, the notice said. 

Prospective providers may request government-furnished equipment or data for the mission, but the office also is considering use of a commercial contract, the notice said. If a commercial contract is used, the provider must obtain a commercial launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, the office said.

As described, the mission fits within 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. It is unclear, however, whether any of these vehicles can meet the ORS Office’s specified price in a dedicated launch. 

Another potential candidate is the Super Strypi rail-launched rocket developed by the ORS Office and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratory. That vehicle is expected to debut this year from Hawaii carrying multiple small satellites in a mission dubbed ORS-4.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...