WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman announced Dec. 12 that Saturn Satellite Networks, a startup satellite manufacturer, will be the customer for the first OmegA launch in 2021.

Northrop said Saturn will fly one or two of its NationSat small geostationary satellites on an OmegA rocket launching from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B in the spring of 2021. Terms of the contract were not disclosed.

Saturn is a firm founded by former executives of satellite operator ABS to develop small geostationary satellites with digital payloads. Saturn announced in September its intent to acquire NovaWurks, a California company that has been developing smallsats using modular platforms that can be expanded. Saturn has also expressed an interest in developing satellites for low and medium Earth orbit applications.

“We are excited to launch Saturn’s NationSat on Northrop Grumman’s OmegA launch vehicle’s inaugural mission,” Jim Simpson, chief executive of Saturn, said in a statement about the launch contract. “OmegA’s performance, payload accommodations, and rigorous certification program assures us it is a great fit for NationSats and our customers.”

Tom Choi, executive chairman of Saturn’s parent company, Airspace Internet Exchange, said in a recent interview with Via Satellite that Saturn had signed a launch contract with an unnamed provider for a launch that had slipped to the second quarter of 2021, adding that it was a “shared launch.” Company executives, though, had earlier stated that they planned to launch their first satellite with SpaceX.

The launch will serve as part of the certification process for the OmegA for national security customers, if Northrop wins a launch services agreement from the U.S. Air Force as part of an ongoing competition. Northrop is competing with Blue Origin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance for what’s anticipated to be two contracts.

“The first flight of OmegA is a key step in our certification process for the U.S. Air Force National Security Space Launch program,” Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Nothrop Grumman said in a statement. “Having Saturn’s NationSat on board for this mission further demonstrates the versatility of OmegA to serve other markets including commercial and civil government.”

With this first launch for Saturn Satellite Networks, “we gain some confidence that our offering is already starting to appeal in the commercial market even though our job one is to make sure the Air Force mission is met,” Precourt told SpaceNews.

ULA is using a similar approach of signing up commercial customers for certification of its Vulcan rocket for national security missions. The company announced earlier this year that Astrobotic, a developer of commercial lunar landers, will fly on the first Vulcan mission in 2021, to be followed by the first of six launches of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser cargo spacecraft later that year.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...