ABL Space Systems RS1
A development version of ABL Space Systems' RS1 rocket, a vehicle capable of placing up to 1,200 kilograms into low Earth orbit for $12 million. Credit: ABL Space Systems

WASHINGTON — The venture arm of Lockheed Martin has invested in small launch startup ABL Space Systems, the second such company the aerospace giant has taken a stake in.

ABL Space Systems said in a July 22 statement that it had closed a “strategic investment” from Lockheed Martin Ventures. The company declined to identify the size of the investment or the resulting valuation of the company.

ABL Space Systems, based in El Segundo, California, is developing the RS1 small launch vehicle. The company announced earlier this year that the vehicle will able to place 1,200 kilograms into low Earth orbit at a per-launch price of $12 million.

The company said it will use the funds from Lockheed’s investment to support the development and test program of the RS1, including an integrated stage test later this year. The company is planning a first launch of the vehicle in 2020.

While ABL Space Systems earlier this year emphasized the role the vehicle could play in supporting the deployment of broadband megaconstellations, both it and Lockheed Martin emphasized potential government missions using the vehicle, which can operate from almost any launch site using modular, containerized systems that can be trucked in.

“The U.S. government is increasingly interested in responsive small launch vehicles and the distinct capabilities they offer,” said Harry O’Hanley, chief executive of ABL Space Systems, in a statement announcing the deal. “Lockheed Martin Space has been providing successful end-to-end solutions to the government for decades and its support offers an excellent opportunity for us to deliver ABL products at scale.”

Lockheed Martin also emphasized the role the RS1 rocket could play in responsive space applications. “We recognize the growing importance of on-demand and flexible launch options as part of a suite of solutions necessary to counter this and other growing challenges,” said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space, in the same statement.

Lockheed’s investment in ABL Space Systems is not the first time it has taken a stake in a small launch startup. Lockheed Martin Ventures participated in Rocket Lab’s Series B funding round in 2015, again making a “strategic investment” of undisclosed size as Rocket Lab was developing its Electron small launcher.

“We need low-cost access to space and high potential frequency of access, which would open different mission types, and we knew that the U.S. government was pushing us to have that kind of access,” Chris Moran of Lockheed Martin Ventures said at a January 2018 conference.

Lockheed Martin subsequently said it was considering using Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from a launch site in northern Scotland that the U.K. government will be developing. Lockheed received a $31 million award from the U.K. Space Agency in July 2018 to establish operations at that spaceport.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...