Raytheon Developing $2M Small Sat Launcher To Fly Under Wing of F-15

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WASHINGTON Raytheon Missile Systems hopes to secure U.S. government funding this year to continue development of a new air-launched rocket designed to carry small satellites to orbit for around $2 million per vehicle, a Raytheon official said Aug. 1.

Tucson, Ariz.-based Raytheon is best known for its tactical missiles and missile defense systems, but the company is increasingly focused on modifying hardware already in production for use in space missions, said Randy Gricius, the company’s director of space applications. For example, the infrared seekers Raytheon builds for the Standard Missile (SM)-3 interceptors could be bolted onto government satellites to provide space situational awareness, Gricius said in an interview.

While small satellites have become increasingly capable in recent years, the U.S. government’s current fleet of rockets is still built around carrying satellites weighing thousands of kilograms to orbit. A handful of military agencies have funded the development of launch vehicles designed to carry payloads of 100 kilograms or less to orbit, but none is yet in production.

A small team of Raytheon engineers have been working on designs for a small satellite launch vehicle that would cost no more than $2 million to produce, Gricius said. Thousands of combinations of rocket motors were considered, and the group came up with a four-stage design that could carry payloads between 10 and 30 kilograms to orbits between 230 and 450 kilometers. The Air Launched Orbital Booster (Air LOB) would be 9 meters long and a half-meter in diameter and launched from under the wing of an F-15 fighter jet, he said.

The Air Force is funding the development of the launch vehicle at a low level, and Raytheon estimates it would need about $30 million and three years to complete development and demonstrate the rocket.

Aside from having a price that is a fraction of other launch vehicles, Air LOB would also be far more responsive than anything else in the U.S. inventory, Gricius said. The rockets would be stored in crates similar to tactical missiles and could be outfitted with a payload in just a few hours, he said. As the Defense Department has F-15 aircraft stationed all around the world, satellites could be launched from just about anywhere. This approach also would not require a large, dedicated launch crew.

“If you use the existing F-15 infrastructure to support it, there’s not a lot of additional cost to that,” Gricius said. “We believe call-up to launch can be done in about two hours, if the mission planning is done ahead of time.”

Raytheon could potentially use solid rocket motors provided by one particular U.S. supplier or one particular international supplier, neither of which Gricius would name. Using U.S.-built motors would drive up the unit cost, he said.

Raytheon since 2009 has been working with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., on the Local Space Imaging System program, which seeks to develop satellite sensors for characterizing the space environment. The company is producing infrared seekers that enable its SM-3 interceptors to detect and track enemy missiles moving thousands of kilometers an hour. Because of economies of scale, those sensors are coming off the production line at around $25,000 apiece, Gricius said.

Working with Aerophysics of Calumet, Mich., Raytheon has developed a 10-kilogram gimbaled system that would use the same infrared sensor for on-orbit detection or imaging, he said.

“The beauty of this is because it’s gimbaled, if you had two of them [on a spacecraft] you get full spherical coverage,” he said.

The infrared system has its own star tracker and is essentially designed to be bolted onto any spacecraft that has the space and power to accommodate it, Gricius said. The Air Force Research Laboratory has spent about $1 million on the project to date and has asked Raytheon and Aerophysics to quote a price to fully qualify the system for an operational mission, he said. The first mission would cost about $50 million, with subsequent systems costing less than $5 million, he said.

Meanwhile, Raytheon recently started work on a small radar satellite mission that is being developed for the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space Office. Raytheon will assemble, integrate and test the spacecraft for the Modular Space Vehicle program under a subcontract from Millennium Engineering and Integration of Arlington, Va.

The 400-kilogram satellite is expected to complete its preliminary design review in November and launch in early 2014, Gricius said. Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Los Angeles is building the satellite platform, and the payload is being developed by Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., and Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev.