WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force leveraged a NASA-managed contracting vehicle in awarding Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) a $13.26 million contract to build a small satellite for space-environment monitoring, the service said.

The Space Test Program Satellite (STPSat)-5 is slated for launch in late 2016 on an unspecified rocket, SNC’s Space Systems Division of Louisville, Colorado, said in a press release Oct. 14. The satellite, to carry up to five government-supplied sensors, is the latest in the Defense Department’s ongoing series of Space Test Program of small demonstration satellites.

In a written response to questions, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles said the STPSat-5 mission is expected to cost $27 million including the satellite, its launch and one year of operations.

The contract was awarded through the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office’s Modular Space Vehicle contract, which is managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, the Air Force said. The ORS Office, Space Test Program and NASA “share a common goal of advancing and delivering low-cost space technologies,” the service said.

SNC has said STPSat-5 will draw on design practices and infrastructure developed as part of its contract to build the second-generation satellite constellation for the Orbcomm data communications service. That constellation is currently undergoing deployment.

Acting on behalf of the ORS Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, NASA Ames in November 2010 selected five companies, including SNC Space Systems, for five-year Modular Space Vehicle contracts in an effort to build a stable of readily available, flexible small-satellite platforms. The other companies selected for the indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts, with a total potential value of $500 million, were: ATK Space Systems of Beltsville, Maryland; Miltec Corp. of Huntsville, Alabama; Northrop Grumman Aerospace of Redondo Beach, California; and PnP Innovations of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In its first use of the contracting vehicle, Ames awarded contracts to Northrop Grumman and SNC Space Systems to develop the spacecraft platform and radar sensor, respectively, for an ORS synthetic aperture radar mission. However, that work was discontinued in favor of a small-satellite mission for space situational awareness that is being developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory under a contract announced in July.

The Air Force has yet to select a launch vehicle for STPSat-5, the service said. Options include sharing a ride as a secondary payload on a rocket purchased by the Air Force or other space organization, partnering with the ORS Office to find a launcher or holding a full and open competition for a launch as a secondary payload, the Air Force said.

STPSat-5 will carry up to five unclassified payloads approved by the Defense Department’s Space Experiments Review Board, which determines launch priority for experiments proposed by Pentagon organizations. The payload set will be finalized by mid-December, the Air Force said.

Meanwhile, NASA Ames, with the support of the ORS Office, intends to extend all five existing Modular Space Vehicle contracts for two years, to November 2017, according to a June 16 notice posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

The Air Force has sought to close the ORS Office in the past couple of years, only to be stymied by the office’s supporters in Congress.

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...