LV0009 launch
The March 15 launch of Astra's Rocket 3.3 carried 16 SpaceBEE satellites for Swarm Technologies, a customer who was undisclosed at the time of the launch. Credit: Brady Kenniston/Astra

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force plans to select a small satellite launcher to fly a payload to low Earth orbit on short notice, a capability known as tactically responsive space.

The Space Force’s Space Systems Command on May 12 announced it plans to award a contract in August for the Tactically Responsive Space (TacRS-3) mission. 

Responsive space is a catchphrase for rapid access to commercial launch vehicles that can be rapidly integrated with payloads and launched during a conflict or a crisis to replace a damaged satellite or augment existing constellations. Congress inserted $50 million in the 2022 defense budget for this effort. 

TacRS-3 will be managed by the Space Force’s Rocket Systems Launch Program. Vendors that were pre-selected for the Orbital Services Program OSP-4 will compete for the task order. 

Space Systems Command had previously named the mission TacRL-3, for Tactically Responsive Launch but changed it to TacRS-3 to “emphasize that these efforts are broader than only launch and are focused on enabling comprehensive space capabilities provided as options for commanders responding to threats in space.”

TacRS-3 will demonstrate an “end-to-end tactically responsive space capability including the launch segment, space segment, ground segment, and on-orbit operations,” said Space Systems Command. 

The selected launcher will deploy a space domain awareness payload called Victus Nox. 

A similar payload was launched in June 2021 for the TacRL-2 mission that flew on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. The whole process from the start of the mission planning to launch took less than 10 months. The launch company was given 21 days to integrate the payload and get it to orbit.

“This next mission is designed to push the limits of speed and responsiveness,” said Lt. Col. Justin Beltz, RSLP program manager. “Our plan is to bring a launch service provider to readiness to execute this mission within months, hold them at that ready state for weeks to months, and then launch within 24 hours when directed to go.”

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...