The US military apparently wants to start launching smaller satellites on smaller missiles. In the government’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget, the Air Force’s budget includes a new entry “Rocket Systems Launch Program” with the aim of purchasing “small launch services” for the timely delivery of smaller payloads in low-earth and geostationary states. orbit around the earth.
The new program, which must be approved by Congress, will yield $47.6 million in fiscal 2019 and a total of $192.5 million over the next five years. It handles the delivery into space of payloads weighing up to 8,000 pounds (about 3,600 kg), significantly less than the capacity of an Atlas V or Falcon 9 rocket. This program comes just as several new US-based companies, including Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Vector, Stratolaunch Systems and more, have developed (or are in the process of developing) small satellite launch boosters.
“Like the commercial and entrepreneurial communities, the government needs small satellites and special small launch vehicles to provide affordable, responsive space capabilities,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told Ars. “This request is another important signal that the government is taking proactive steps to ensure they can rapidly reconstruct and replenish critical space capabilities, something the next generation of affordable commercially developed launch vehicles are perfectly positioned for. We wholeheartedly support this request. “
In recent years, U.S. military leaders have warned of the growing potential for conflict in space — particularly the possibility of foreign actors destroying or disabling U.S. espionage and communications assets in orbit. As part of its mandate for “insured access to space,” the Air Force would like to have the ability to quickly launch replacement satellites that could capture some or all of the lost capability from such an attack. The Air Force’s justification for this new capability, first reported by Space newsreflects this need to quickly rearrange assets in space.
“The current and future space domain requires space systems to respond to new and evolving threats and quickly integrate new capabilities to make our armed forces more resilient in a contested battlespace,” the budget proposal states. “This agility, survivability and rapid reconstruction should extend across the entire space warfare enterprise, including how we learn about the threat; develop solutions; acquire, test, deploy, train, operate, and integrate new systems into the larger system of systems; and ensure that to ensure that our space mission force is ready to defeat a thinking adversary in a complex multi-domain battle space.”
The new breed of smaller rocket companies don’t yet have the capability to launch payloads of 8,000 pounds, but are developing a system that could eventually be able to launch that much on demand, and into almost any orbit they want. They are building these smaller, cheaper rockets at a time when the satellite industry is going through a period of rapid miniaturization.