For decades, the promise of a faster and more responsive launch capability has seduced military strategists who have looked for ways to get satellites to orbit quickly in response to adversary threats or intelligence demands.
With help from congressional advocates, the U.S. Space Force is embarking on new initiatives to compress mission timelines that typically take months or years to weeks or even days.
One such effort is Victus Nox, a mission the Space Force awarded to Firefly Aerospace and Millennium Space Systems last year. The companies on Aug. 30 announced they are officially on “hot standby,” meaning that the Space Force expects the satellite and the rocket to be ready for launch anytime within the next six months.
Upon receiving an alert, the companies will have a 60-hour window to transport the payload to Firefly’s launch site at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, fuel the vehicle and integrate the payload with the rocket. Then the Space Force will issue another notice with the final orbit requirements, giving Firefly just 24 hours to update the trajectory and guidance software, encapsulate the payload, transport it to the pad and stand ready to launch at the first available window.
However this turns out, it should provide valuable lessons.
With $60 million budgeted for the next two years for responsive launch, the Space Force and the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) are kicking off new projects to keep the industry engaged. They are asking companies to envision a scenario where China, for example, deploys an anti-satellite weapon in space — and the U.S., in response, launches a sensor satellite to inspect and characterize the Chinese spacecraft.
The U.S. would need to perform this mission in an “operationally relevant timeline, and usually, that means about 24 hours,” said Lt. Col. MacKenzie Birchenough, who oversees the responsive launch program at Space Systems Command.
The Space Force in late August announced a Tactically Responsive Space Challenge, with bids due Sept. 28. Selected proposals will receive Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts of up to $1.7 million.
DIU, around the same time, rolled out a separate solicitation for a responsive space mission named Victus Haze, with proposals due Sept. 7.
‘Need to put real money into it’
Fred Kennedy, space industry executive and a former director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has seen the military dabble with responsive launch initiatives for decades.
While at DARPA, Kennedy oversaw the agency’s responsive launch challenge, which ended in 2020 with no winners, as none of the launch providers could meet the timeline.
Kennedy also was involved in the 2007 standup of the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office. This congressionally mandated organization set lofty goals to accelerate space missions using commercially available satellites and rockets.
“I’m a big proponent of responsive launch,” he said. “It’s nice to see them talking about this again, but to move beyond experiments into actual operations, they need to put real money into it.”
Many companies are “happy to get SBIR money, and they’ll go off and do honest, hard work to explain how one day something like this can happen,” said Kennedy. On-demand missions like Victus Nox are not something the industry does in its commercial business, so the Space Force will need to figure out how to procure these responsive services.
Companies like SpaceX and Planet can mass-produce satellites on demand. “So having those in the barn and ready to go is a very doable thing,” said Kennedy. “But on the launch side, we’re just not there. We’ve been working on this problem for a very long time.”
SpaceX certainly has demonstrated an ever-increasing launch cadence. “But no one is taking a payload to Elon Musk and asking him to launch in a couple of days,” Kennedy said. “Nobody’s doing anything like that.”
Responsive launch is a worthwhile pursuit, he said, but “it’s still a bit of a dream.”
This article originally appeared in the “On National Security” commentary feature in the September 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.