— The U.S. Air Force-led Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office is planning to procure its first operational satellite and launch it in 24 months in response to an “urgent need” coming from U.S. Central Command, the office’s top official said.

The office plans to move forward with an open competition for a satellite platform, or bus, and a payload expected to cost between $60 million and $70 million to satisfy an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) need, Peter Wegner, ORS office director, said in an Aug. 5 interview. He declined to identify the need or the type of payload.

The plan now needs approval from the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, and the Pentagon’s executive agent for space, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley. The decision is expected to be made in September, Wegner said.

The ORS office’s satellite development efforts have been limited thus far to experimental satellites such as the TacSat series, which is intended to demonstrate the ability to build and launch satellites quickly in response to an emerging need. The planned ISR satellite would be the first procured by the office for operational use.

The ORS office has built-in budget flexibility to be able to respond to urgent needs of joint force commanders in a variety of ways. In the 15 months since being established, for example, the office has twice developed solutions for operational users: in one case it filled a gap in the U.S. Navy’s UHF satellite communications capacity; in the other it met an unspecified space situational awareness need, Wegner said. Both of those solutions were crafted using existing space and terrestrial capabilities in novel ways; neither involved building a satellite. The decisions were approved by Chilton and former Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne.

The ISR need that the office now hopes to address with a brand new satellite was the subject of an April 8 request relayed via Strategic Command, the ORS office said. It arose because there is an existing space system, which Wegner said he could not identify, that Central Command is relying on for some missions that will not be available at some point in the future.

Centcom came to us and said, ‘when that system goes away, we’re going to have a problem, because we have a certain number of things that we need to do today that we rely on that system for,’” Wegner said. “So they said, ‘can you help us solve that problem?’”

The ORS office has a plan for a specific satellite system, but it remains unclear whether other parts of the military will be asked to contribute funds. The office, staffed by fewer than 20 people, also plans to work with another military organization to procure the satellite, although which one has yet to be determined. Among the organizations set up to procure satellites are the Air Force Space and
Los Angeles
and the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates classified systems.

The ORS office has contracted with Orbital Sciences Corp. of
, for four launches, each spaced roughly one year apart, aboard Minotaur vehicles, which utilize excess strategic missile stages. The TacSat-3 satellite will launch in October aboard a Minotaur-1, followed by the TacSat-4 satellite in September 2009 on a larger Minotaur-4. If approved, the new ISR satellite will launch aboard a Minotaur in 2010, taking the place of the first of a new series of demonstration satellites dubbed ORS.

The ORS satellite series differs from TacSat in that the technologies to be tested are more mature. The first two satellites in the ORS series, ORS-1 and ORS-2, are still being defined.

“In terms of the way our budget strategy lays out right now, in addition to working with industry to develop these enabling technologies, we’re moving now to start rolling those into actual satellite procurement,” Wegner said. “We’ve basically laid out the ORS budget so that every year we are starting a new satellite acquisition. We are working now in refining the plan for ORS-1 and intend to kick that one off in the next couple months.”