Orbital ATK Bacchus facility
Orbital ATK is developing a new rocket that could eventually compete for Air Force missions. Credit: Orbital ATK

WASHINGTON – Orbital ATK has won a $23.6 million contract to launch a small space surveillance satellite for the U.S. Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office in 2017, the Pentagon announced July 2.

The announcement did not say which rocket Orbital would use to launch the ORS-5 satellite or where the  launch would take place. The Air Force, in an April 2014 posting to the Federal Business Opportunities website, detailed ORS-5 launch requirements that fit the performance of Orbital’s Pegasus XL or the Minotaur rockets.

Barry Beneski, an Orbital spokesman, did not respond July 2 to questions from SpaceNews.

ORS-5, also known as SensorSat, is being built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to scan the geosynchronous-orbit belt from low Earth orbit.

Tentatively slated to launch in the second quarter of 2017, ORS-5 has been touted by the Air Force as a potential bridge between the Space Based Space Surveillance Block 10 satellite, currently on orbit, and as a pathfinder for a trio of new, smaller space surveillance satellites that are not expected to launch before 2021. From its low Earth orbit vantage point, the Block 10 satellite keeps tabs on objects in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the equator, home to critical U.S. communications and missile warning satellites. It is expected to reach its end of life about 2017.

In its launch services solicitation last year, the Air Force said the chosen launch vehicle must be capable of putting the 80-110-kilogram satellite into an equatorial orbit with an altitude of 500-700 kilometers.

Orbital was the only company to submit a bid, according to the July 2 announcement.

The Air Force had hoped to launch ORS-5 for $20 million, but Col. John Anttonen, the director of the Operationally Responsive Space Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, told SpaceNews earlier this year that no existing launch service provider could meet that target.

“We went out and asked industry: ‘Can you meet $20 million?,’” Anttonen said. “A lot of the new space vendor concepts that are out there came back and said yes. But they have never built a rocket yet. The folks that have built the rockets or done the rideshares came back said we cant meet it but only because you’re going to a highly unique orbit. You’re going to zero degrees. They came back and said we can do $30 million. We said all right. Not bad. It’s an improvement over where we were.”

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.