ABL engine test
ABL Space Systems conducted an integrated stage test of the upper stage of its RS1 small launch vehicle at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Credit: ABL Space Systems

WASHINGTON — Small launch startup ABL Space Systems announced May 17 it was selected by the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit to launch a military payload. 

Based in El Segundo, California, ABL is developing the RS1 small launch vehicle designed to deliver up to 1,350 kilograms into low Earth orbit.

The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), headquartered in Silicon Valley, was created to work with commercial companies to bring new technologies into military programs. 

DIU became an early supporter of emerging space launch companies like Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and Relativity Space, which were selected to launch experimental DoD payloads as part of an effort to figure out how DoD can leverage commercial launch services. ABL Space has now been added to the group.

DIU helps connect small launch providers with military buyers from the Space and Missile Systems Center Rocket Systems Launch Program and the DoD Space Test Program. Providers have to demonstrate they can deploy payloads in “mission-designated orbits” on relatively short notice. 

ABL President Dan Piemont said in a statement that the company can “provide access to space when and where needed, without making any compromises on performance or cost.”

ABL advertises a $12 million price tag for an RS1 rocket. The company did not disclose the value of the DIU agreement. 

The RS1 launch vehicle has a deployable ground system which allows the company to launch from many different locations. “We’re excited to partner with DIU to demonstrate responsive launch operations and deliver new capabilities to the U.S. government,” said ABL CEO Harry O’Hanley.

ABL last year received two U.S. Air Force contracts worth $44.5 million. One is from the U.S. Air Force’s technology accelerator AFWERX to demonstrate launch technology, and the other with the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Enterprise Consortium to conduct three demonstrations of an RS1 vehicle variant and deployable ground infrastructure in 2022.

The company’s first orbital launch of the RS1 is projected for 2021. “We are expecting flight readiness of the first RS1 flight vehicle this summer, but expect that regulatory approvals will likely push our first launch attempt to into Q3,” Piemont told SpaceNews.

ABL in recent months announced it has signed deals to launch satellites for L2 Aerospace and for Lockheed Martin.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...