U.S. military Electron launch first test for York satellite

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This article was updated April 19 at 3:38 p.m. Eastern to correct launch timing. The 14-day launch window opens May 4. 

COLORADO SPRINGS and FREMONT, Calif. – Rocket Lab is preparing to launch in May three U.S. military satellites including the Army Harbinger mission as part of the Defense Department’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative. Harbinger is designed to test whether an inexpensive commercial satellite equipped with a synthetic aperture radar can quickly deliver Earth imagery to soldiers.

Through Harbinger, the Army plans to evaluate the benefit of rapid deployment of a low-cost, state-of-the art satellite with enhanced data collection and downlink capabilities, according to Harbinger fact sheet published by the Army Space and Missile Defense Command and Army Forces Strategic Command’s Technical Center.

The Harbinger mission will be the first on-orbit demonstration for York Space Systems, said Charles Beames, York executive chairman. The Denver startup advertises three-axis stabilized S-class satellites for payloads of 85 kilograms or less for $1.2 million.

“We have a lot of customers in various stages of contracting,” Beames told SpaceNews at the 35th Space Symposium. “When its on-orbit, it’s a dramatic reduction in perceived risk for our customers.”

Rocket Lab plans to launch Harbinger on its fifth operational mission alongside the joint U.S.-Swedish Space Plug-and-Play Architecture Research Cubesat (SPARC) and the Air Force Academy’s Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment.  SPARC is a six-unit cubesat designed to test miniature avionics, software defined radios and space situational awareness. For the Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment, the Air Force plans to release two stainless steel ball bearings from a ten-centimeter-square cubesat to help calibrate ground-based radar and optical sensors.

The 14-day launch window for the next Electron flight opens May 4, Morgan Bailey, Rocket Lab communications manager, said by email.

York is attracting interest from government and commercial customers, Beames said. He declined to name customers due to nondisclosure agreements but said startups are looking to York to supply buses, integrate instruments, conduct final testing and ship spacecraft to launch sites. “Instead of building satellites themselves, they come to York to buy two satellites to demonstrate their idea to investors,” he added.

Government agencies, meanwhile, are working with York and other small satellite manufacturers to explore how small satellites fit into future architectures.

“We still need exquisite satellites for certain things,” said Beames, a retired U.S Air Force colonel and former Office of the Secretary of Defense principal director for space and intelligence systems. “But we don’t need billion-dollar satellites for every single mission.”

Beames joined York in 2017 because he sees companies like York “as the solution to what plagues our national security space problem. The fundamental problem is we are paying way too much money for the capabilities the country needs,” Beames said.

York spacecraft are designed to fly on any launch vehicle. “It’s a very robust design that can handle the roughest solid rocket motor, next-generation liquid rockets, air-launch or rideshare,” Beames said. “For our customers, launch is their decision. They decide how much they want to spend and how quickly they want to launch.”

Rapid Agile Launch Initiative is an Air Force program managed by the Defense Innovation Unit.