WASHINGTON — A U.S. Space Force mission carrying a navigation satellite to geostationary Earth orbit has been confirmed as the first national security launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket.
“USSF-106 is the first planned National Security Space mission for Vulcan,” Col. Doug Pentecost, Space Systems Command’s deputy program executive officer for assured access to space, told SpaceNews via email.
USSF-106 will carry the Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3), an experiment funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory and billed as the future GPS. NTS-3, made by L3Harris, will broadcast positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) signals from geostationary Earth orbit. It will seek to demonstrate next-generation PNT technologies for the U.S. military and provide an alternative to GPS.
AFRL had previously said NTS-3 would launch on Vulcan but the Space Force now confirmed this will be Vulcan’s first national security launch.
ULA’s chief executive Tory Bruno told reporters last week that he expects Vulcan to be certified for national security launch later this year after the vehicle completes two commercial missions.
Vulcan is years behind schedule due to delays in the development and qualification of the Blue Origin BE-4 engines that power the vehicle’s first stage.
The vehicle’s long-awaited debut flight, scheduled for May 4, will carry Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, two demonstration satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband constellation and a payload for space memorial company Celestis. Its second mission will be to fly Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane to the International Space Station.
Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, program executive officer for assured access to space, told SpaceNews last week at the Space Mobility conference in Orlando, that he remains optimistic that Vulcan can finally start flying national security missions by year’s end.
The Space Force in 2020 selected Vulcan to launch 60% of the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 missions over the next several years. The other winner of Phase 2, SpaceX, in January launched its first mission of the Phase 2 contract.
Because of Vulcan’s development delays, the first mission awarded to ULA that would have been flown by Vulcan — USSF-51 — was moved to an Atlas 5. The Space Force has not yet announced a launch date for USSF-51.
The Space Force has a vested interest in Vulcan’s success as it funded nearly $1 billion in development costs. The rocket also is of strategic importance to the United States because it replaces ULA’s Atlas 5 in the national security launch fleet. The Atlas 5 has to be phased out because it uses the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine.
Purdy said Vulcan’s progress is being watched closely because the Space Force depends on it for assured access to space and because of the urgency to end U.S. dependence on the RD-180.
He said he is also happy to see ULA winning commercial orders for Vulcan. “This means I’m able to leverage the launch commercial industry,” said Purdy. “I’m really hopeful for that future.”