Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office awards contract to Sierra Nevada for weather satellite

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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

A new office created to accelerate the acquisition of military space technologies awarded Sierra Nevada Corp. a $119 million contract last month to develop a weather satellite.

The Space Rapid Capabilities Office, which reports to the Air Force Space Command, said the award is for the continuation of a program known as ORS-8 — a satellite requested by U.S. Strategic Command to provide “cloud characterization and theater weather imagery,” an Air Force spokesman told SpaceNews.

The name ORS comes from the Space Rapid Capabilities Office’s previous designation, Operationally Responsive Space. Congress in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act changed the name partly out of frustration that the ORS office since its inception in 2007 had not produced much in the way of operationally useful technology and stuck mostly to experiments. Congress has been pushing the Air Force to modernize military space systems and use the RCO as a vehicle.

For the ORS-8 weather satellite, the Space RCO worked with NASA Ames Research Center’s small spacecraft prototyping office. The contract to Sierra Nevada was awarded Sept. 18. The launch of the new satellite is projected for 2022.

SpaceNews reported in April that under a program called Weather Satellite Follow-on electro optical infrared, or WSF-E, the Air Force will invest about $450 million on a satellite that would be operational by 2024. In the ORS-8 mission, the Air Force will demonstrate a new sensor and assess whether it meets the requirements of WSF-E.

The Space RCO is headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. Congress specifically stated that RCO facilities may not be co-located with the headquarters of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles.

Congress appropriated $371.1 million for the office in fiscal year 2019. According to the Air Force spokesman, the funds will be spent on three key efforts: ORS-8, a solar power project to develop a capability to collect solar energy for deployed forces, and on the Blackjack program. Blackjack, led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is an architecture demonstration intending to show the military utility of global low-Earth orbit constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight, and cost. Congress has directed the Space RCO to collaborate with DARPA on this effort.

Asked what other projects the office might take on, the spokesman said the Space RCO “will remain a streamlined organization, but it may grow as it takes on additional programs and functions.”

The Space RCO is modeled after the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, located at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. The Air Force RCO has been widely praised for its management of the B-21 stealth bomber program and for successfully launching the Air Force X-37 experimental robotic space plane, racking up more than 2,000 flight hours over two years.


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