LOS ANGELES — Redwire announced a contract June 17 to serve as prime mission integrator for a DARPA satellite with a novel propulsion system for very low Earth orbit (VLEO).

SabreSat, Redwire’s VLEO satellite for government intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, will house “air-breathing” electric propulsion systems being developed through DARPA’s Otter program.

Phantom, another VLEO platform, is being developed by Redwire’s European office for the European Space Agency’s Skimsat mission.

“We are taking an innovative approach to developing a new breed of spacecraft that bridge the gap between air and space,” Spence Wise, Redwire senior vice president for missions and platforms, told SpaceNews by email. “DARPA Otter is the first major win for our SabreSat VLEO platform, and it extends our leadership as a prime integrator and international pioneer in VLEO.”

Redwire did not disclose the value of the multi-year DARPA Otter contract, which includes pricing for design through on-orbit operations.

VLEO’s Promise

National security organizations are becoming increasingly interested in VLEO opportunities and challenges. Satellites in VLEO promise high-resolution Earth imagery and low-latency communications. But remaining in VLEO orbit requires frequent firing of onboard thrusters to counter atmospheric drag.

“This award demonstrates that there is real interest in VLEO,” Wise said. “We see VLEO as a crucial domain for the future of defense and intelligence operations, as well as Earth science and communications.”

DARPA’s Otter program funds the development and demonstration of “air-breathing” electric propulsion technologies to enable extended satellite operations at altitudes between 90 and 250 kilometers.

Propulsion Contracts

In March, Colorado-based Electric Propulsion Laboratory Inc. announced a DARPA Otter contract with a maximum value of $6.7 million. Under the contract, EPL plans to further development of its Air Breathing ELectric (ABEL) engines.

Similarly, California-based Phase Four announced a $14.9 million DARPA Otter contract in April for “air-breathing” electric propulsion system for extended satellite operations at altitudes ranging from 90 to 450 kilometers.

As the prime contractor for the DARPA program, Redwire will build the SabreSat bus and develop and integrate mission-related technologies.

Redwire has configured its Digitally Engineered Mission Systems & Integration platform to support VLEO programs. DEMSI relies on high-fidelity physics and space weather observations to model atmospheric drag and material degradation caused by atomic oxygen.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...