Very low Earth orbit (VLEO) refers to orbits between 250 and 450 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Credit: SpaceNews graphic

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate announced Nov. 17 it awarded an $8.4 million contract to Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems for an experiment in very low Earth orbit projected to launch in 2024.

AFRL started the project known as Precise flight experiment as it seeks to conduct more research in very low Earth orbit (VLEO) to better understand the physics of the upper atmosphere.

“It will examine ionization processes in the ionosphere, the region of ionized gas between 90 and 600 kilometer altitude, which impacts radio propagation used by warfighters for communications and navigation,” said the program manager Rachel Hock-Mysliwiec.

The experiment will use sensitive satellite instruments and radio waves to examine changes in the ionosphere resulting from different compositions of ion source gasses, she said.

Tyvak will supply a spacecraft for the experiment that will be capable of maneuvering between low Earth orbit (LEO) and VLEO for conducting sensor payload measurements.

The contract was an Other Transaction Authority (OTA) agreement awarded by the Space Systems Command’s Space Enterprise Consortium.

“We are very excited to have this decentralized capability that will accelerate prototype awards,” said Col. Eric Felt, director of AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate.

Tyvak’s parent company Terran Orbital announced in October it plans to go public via a SPAC merger with the Tailwind Two Acquisition Corp. special purpose acquisition company. The transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of 2022.

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...