Clearer picture emerging of the future of “rapid space”
FARNBOROUGH, England — The top weapons buyer of the U.S. Air Force said more “rapid acquisitions” are happening in the service’s space portfolio than in any other area.
“We have to go much faster,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force, told reporters on Tuesday.
Roper planned to spend Wednesday visiting the U.K. military’s “rapid capabilities office” and British aerospace firms that are involved in the nation’s fast growing space sector. “I’m extremely excited to hear about the U.K. upcoming launch capabilities,” he said. “We’ll be looking to partner with the U.K. in many areas but space will definitely be one.”
At a separate news event Tuesday hosted by Lockheed Martin and the UK Space Agency, officials were talking about future spaceports where, in just a few years, the militaries of the United Kingdom and close allies like the United States will be able to launch satellites on 72-hours’ notice. Air Vice-Marshal Simon “Rocky” Rochelle, chief of staff capability and development of the U.K. Royal Air Force, said responsive launch will be an important capability for the military.
The United States and the United Kingdom have “very similar strategies” for gaining faster and cheaper access to space, said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin’s space business.
Lockheed is now a central player in both the U.S. and U.K. space sectors. The company made headlines at the airshow this week when it was awarded $31 million by the UK Space Agency to support the nation’s new spaceflight program, an initiative to create a commercial launch market that offers regular, reliable and responsible access to space.
The U.K. vision is to build the infrastructure to support both vertical and horizontal launch, which requires large airplanes, and have a manufacturing and supplier base that can produce small satellites quickly.
The industry frequently gets drawn into debates on the merits of vertical-versus-horizontal launch, or small-versus-large satellites. “We get asked those questions a lot,” said Ambrose. “My position is that you want access to space. There’s room in the market for all,” he said in an interview.
Satellite manufacturing is the other piece. With a $9 billion a year space business, Lockheed is best known for making huge spacecraft and customized military hardware. About five years ago it started to retool its products and manufacturing lines in anticipation of a shift to smaller and faster space.
“As the UK develops its space industry further, I think you’ll see bigger economics from the mini-satellites and the value they create from data, from science, and from military missions,” said Ambrose.
For the UK spaceflight program, Lockheed is considering using a launch vehicle from startup Rocket Lab and a second-stage orbital delivery vehicle made by Moog that can carry up to six cubesats. This type of “precision delivery” of satellites is important for smallsat constellations that will need to be refreshed on short notice.
Despite the smallsat revolution, Ambrose does not expect large geosynchronous orbit satellites will be replaced in the foreseeable future. Part of responsive space is the ability to have a mix of systems, said Ambrose. “I’ve heard this over and over, that we can’t do everything with small satellites.” The technology is not there yet, he said. Key components like beams, optics and apertures are not yet miniaturized to the degree they need to be, and that may not happen for five or 10 years. “But we are going to be moving down this curve,” Ambrose said.
Additive manufacturing is the secret sauce that Lockheed believes will help shift gears from one size satellite to another depending on the mission. “That is how I bring small and large, and converge in a way that I can use many similar manufacturing techniques.”
Satellite fuel tanks are a case in point. The first tanks that were 3D printed were for smallsats. Over the past three years, Lockheed gradually increased the size of the parts and now can print a 46-inch tank. “This is not trivial,” he said. “Now almost in the same timeframe I can print a small tank or a large one. Imagine projecting that to the future.”
There is no one-size-fits-all for responsive space, he said. “You may need clusters of small satellites. There may be some things that stay with large ones. Taking one extreme or the other is a dangerous intellectual place to be.”
The holy grail is a “software defined satellite” that could be reprogrammed like a computer when it needs to change location or mission. Ambrose said Lockheed is “making progress” and plans to soon discuss more details publicly.
Two of the Air Force space programs that the service is trying to accelerate are hypersonic missiles and missile-launch detection and warning satellites. Lockheed is the primary contractor on both.
“A lot is going on in the Air Force right now,” Ambrose said. The service wants to see technologies move faster from the lab to the field, and is doing things like simplifying red tape and eliminating layers of middle management in programs. “I have not seen this much change in at least a decade.”