At some point during the next six months, the U.S. Space Force will conduct an important test of its ability to rapidly respond to world events.
When a group of Space Force leaders says, “Go,” Millennium Space Systems and the Space Systems Command’s Space Safari program office will have 60 hours to transport the Victus Nox small satellite to Vandenberg Space Force Base and integrate it with a Firefly Aerospace rocket.
Sometime after that, again the timing is unclear, Space Force leaders will give orders for Victus Nox, to be prepared to launch within 24 hours.
“Those are incredibly challenging timelines,” Space Force Lt. Col. MacKenzie Birchenough, Space Safari materiel leader, said April 12 during a news briefing at Millennium in El Segundo, California. “We intentionally are trying to push the limits.”
Tactically Responsive Space
Tactically Responsive Space, which the Space Force defines as the capability to respond to on-orbit needs on operationally relevant timelines, is not a new idea. For more than a decade, military and congressional leaders have looked for ways to develop and launch satellites quickly in response to military threats or intelligence demands.
What’s new is that current technology is bringing that goal within reach. Millennium is one of several companies rapidly producing small satellites. Meanwhile, startups are developing, and some are flying, small rockets.
“The state of technology and how industry works these days is what’s allowing us to make it a reality,” Birchenough said.
The prior mission, Tactically Responsive Launch-2, focused on slashing the timeline for sending a satellite aloft.
While the Space Force succeeded in sending a satellite to orbit in 21 days, “one of the big takeaways was that it is much more than just about launch,” Birchenough said. “More focus needs to go into the specific SV [space vehicle] development and getting the ground approvals ahead of time. There’s a lot of things that happen behind the scenes to put together a space mission.”
Normally, military agencies spend several years drafting requirements for new satellites, acquiring them, establishing the ground infrastructure, obtaining the necessary regulatory approvals and preparing for launch.
“Oftentimes you know your launch date, or pretty close to it, months, if not more ahead of time,” Birchenough said. “We are definitely shrinking things very drastically from basically months to years down to days to months.”
Victus Nox is the space segment of the Tactically Responsive Space-3 mission, known as TacRS-3. The Space Force awarded contracts in August to Millennium, a Boeing company, to produce Victus Nox and Firefly to launch the spacecraft.
Millennium has nearly finished building and testing the Victus Nox satellite. Work on the satellite could be completed in a matter of months because Millennium was “founded in 2001 to do fast paced national security missions,” said Millennium CEO Jason Kim.
“We are truly end-to-end,” Kim said. “We have an active satellite production line.”
Millennium also produces 22 satellite components in-house, which comprise about 80 percent of the company’s satellites, and runs Mission Operations Centers.
“We’ve operated several constellations and single spacecraft as well,” Kim said. “All those things combined enabled us to deliver the space vehicle and the ground portion.”
Still, Victus Nox poses challenges. Another TacRS-3 goal is commissioning the new satellite within 48 hours of launch.
“It doesn’t do us much good to get something on orbit quick if we can’t use it very fast as well,” Birchenough said.
Millennium plans to rehearse many elements of the TacRS-3 mission.
“We’re going to be executing what’s called a dry run or a dress rehearsal to essentially stress test our interfaces,” said Andrew Chau, Millennium’s Victus Nox program manager.
Rehearsals will cover transporting the satellite to the Vandenberg payload processing facility, fueling, charging batteries, conducting baseline functional testing of the spacecraft and handing it off to Firefly.
Millennium and Firefly also plan to simulate the launch phase, including transporting Victus Nox to the launch pad.
It’s not yet clear how the Victus Nox satellite will travel north 300 kilometers from El Segundo to Vandenberg. It may fly on a C-17 military transport jet.
“You don’t necessarily need a C-17 to fly from Los Angeles to Vandenberg,” Birchenough said. “But we wanted to test out that ability so that if in the future we needed to fly it to the Cape [Canaveral] or to some other location, we know that we can do that.”