Pentagon Considering Commercial Launches for Space Experiments

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WASHINGTON — On the heels of its successful November launch, the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program has begun planning  a mission that could involve hosting military experiments on commercial satellites or hitching a ride to space on a commercial launch vehicle.

The Space Test Program at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., organizes space launches for experiments developed by many government agencies. The most recent STP-S26 mission crammed seven small satellites atop a Minotaur 4 rocket and demonstrated numerous technologies that the military may incorporate into future operational missions.

Not much has been decided about the next Space Test Program mission. The Air Force is interested in potentially hosting multiple experiments on commercial missions planned for launch in 2012 or 2013, according to a Feb. 18 request for information posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website. The service provided technical specifications for 15 experiments that could be considered for commercial launches. A total of 73 experiments are prioritized for launch by the Pentagon’s Space Experiments Review Board.

The Space Test Program has a nearly $50 million annual budget that is expected to remain relatively stable, and its goal is to launch as many experiments as possible with that level of funding, said Air Force Col. Carol Welsch, the organization’s director.

“Our challenge is to launch as many experiments as we can, given the same amount of funding [each year],” Welsch said in a Feb. 22 interview. “The number of experiments is growing exponentially, which is a good sign. It means we have a very healthy [research and development] community that’s coming up with great ideas. That’s driving us to be as creative as possible, to turn over every stone and investigate every possible option for getting these experiments on orbit.”

Hosting military payloads on commercial satellites or launch vehicles is not new, but it is  still uncommon enough to require some unique preparations by both government and industry, Welsch said.

“I think one of the first challenges we will probably be looking at is security,” she said. “I think there has been some other work done in the past that will help us overcome that, but it’s something we will have to be careful with.

“Another interesting area will be how commercial industry does mission assurance and certifying the spacecraft will meet our needs. … Some of this may just be getting us used to commercial practices and getting some of the commercial guys used to government practices.”

After receiving responses from industry that are due March 7, the Space Test Program will weigh its options and decide in the year ahead whether its next mission will use a traditional government-procured launch vehicle or tag along an appropriate commercial mission. The Space Test Program likely will initiate an acquisition of the chosen type this year, Welsch said.

Regardless of the type of launch the Space Test Program pursues next, the organization has a seven-year plan that likely will include a mix of launch capabilities, from small government-purchased launch vehicles to commercial rockets to Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, she said.

Meanwhile, the seven satellites that launched on the STP-S26 mission are all functional, and the Space Test Program met all of its primary objectives for the mission, Welsch said. The primary payload for the mission, STPSat-2, finished its on-orbit checkout in just seven days, a full three weeks ahead of plan. The satellite uses a new platform called the Space Test Program-Standard Interface Vehicle, built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., which has performed very well, she said.

The mission also demonstrated the new Boeing-developed Hydrazine Auxiliary Propulsion System, or HAPS, that will allow future launches to deploy experiments at various altitudes.

Another unique spacecraft onboard the STP-S26 mission was the Fast, Affordable Science and Technology Satellite — or FASTSat — built by 13 Huntsville, Ala.-based organizations. The 90-kilogram satellite on Jan. 18 ejected a 4-kilogram NASA cubesat called Nanosail D, a solar sail demonstration mission.

Nanosail D’s sail deployed Jan. 21 and is functioning properly. The technology has shown to be a promising means of deorbiting future small spacecraft once they are no longer useful, Welsch said.

“We’re trying very hard to be good stewards of the space environment and not leave our spacecraft up there once they’ve turned into space junk,” she said.