Pentagon procurement chief Ellen Lord: DoD needs launch vehicles for small satellites

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Ellen Lord: “I think we need to look at launch service capability for small sats as well as large.”

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military will have growing demands for space vehicles that can launch small satellites to orbit on short notice. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said the Pentagon should work more closely with launch providers to make sure those services are available in the  near future.

One of her stops during a recent trip to California was launch startup Virgin Orbit, a spinoff of Richard Branson’s suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic. The company developed a vehicle called LauncherOne that will be air-launched from a modified Boeing 747 aircraft. It is preparing to launch a small satellite for the Defense Department in 2019.

“They’re an example of the type of companies I think we need to cultivate,” Lord told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday. “I think we need to look at launch service capability for small sats as well as large.”

Virgin Orbit created a subsidiary, Vox Space, specifically to work with the U.S. government. The upcoming 2019 mission is for the DoD Space Test Program, overseen by the Air Force Space and Missile System Center. The launch deal with Vox Space was arranged by the Pentagon’s technology outreach office in Silicon Valley, the Defense Innovation Unit.

Vox is “one of many companies we’re working with,” said Lord. “DIU is working with them that’s why I went there.”

The type of satellites that Virgin Orbit is gearing up to launch for government and commercial customers — ranging from 300kg to 500kg — could in the future make up large constellations that the military would use for communications,  early warning and other missions that are done today by large satellites. The Pentagon has declared space a “warfighting domain,” said Lord, and “we are developing rules of engagements and architectures.”

To make constellations more resilient to enemy attacks, the Pentagon would deploy large numbers of small satellites. If any of these satellites were destroyed or electronically disabled, replacements could be flowing into orbit relatively quickly. But that assumes that launch vehicles are available on demand to respond. Lord said the Pentagon has to ensure there are no “capability gaps” in launch services for small satellites.

Virgin Orbit last month conducted the first captive carry flight of the LauncherOne vehicle. In the test, a LauncherOne rocket was attached to the aircraft but was not released.

The first orbital flight is projected to take place in early 2019.