24 hours from ‘go’: Next Space Force ‘responsive launch’ experiment aims to loft satellite in a hurry

The U. S. Space Force successfully launched the Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) mission on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base on June 13

The Space Force successfully launched its Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) mission on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base on June 13, 2021. (Space Force)

AMOS 2022 — The Space Force’s next “Tactically Responsive Space” experiment will feature an attempt to launch a satellite within 24 hours of receiving the “go” order, Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, head of Space Systems Command (SSC) said today, in what would be a drastic reduction in turnaround time.

“What we have challenged that team to do … is to rapidly respond to a real threat with an operational capability using operational crews on operationally relevant timelines,” Guetlein told the more than 1,000 participants at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) conference in Maui.

If the service can pull that off during its attempt next summer, it would represent an unprecedented feat for the Pentagon’s long-running effort to achieve the capability to launch satellites to meet wartime timelines for space-based capabilities, such as battlefield intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.  Indeed, so-called ‘responsive launch,’ the ability to launch practically on demand, has been a Holy Grail for the Pentagon for more than a decade — see Operationally Responsive Space —arguably without much real-world progress until very recently. The last such experiment managed relatively speedy work by getting a satellite up in just under a year.

“We have spent a lot of time admiring the problem of how to be responsive in space,” Guetlein said. “We are done admiring the problem, and we are getting after the combatant commands’ need to truly protect and defend the peaceful use of space.”

The rapid launch is part of SSC’s planned VICTUS NOX (roughly translating to “defeat the darkness”) mission [PDF] to build a low Earth orbit satellite equipped with a sensor to keep tabs on adversary satellites and danger space debris — a mission that is now performed at a much higher altitude by the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites.

Guetlein said that space domain awareness is “foundational” to the Space Force’s mission, and that the Tactically Responsive Space program “is a tool that will help us help us to continue to ensure SDA capabilities in orbit.”

SSC issued a solicitation for the Tactically Responsive Space (TacRS-3) launch service in May, using the Orbital Services Program-4 (OSP-4) Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract vehicle. There are now 11 companies pre-qualified under OSP-4 to compete for such launches through 2028.

The VICTUS NOX mission is building on Space Safari’s first responsive space mission June 13, 2021, which was called Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2). The payload was a small space domain awareness satellite called Odyssey, built and operated by the Air Force Research Laboratory and Space Dynamics Laboratory. TacRL-2 was able to turn around a launch within 11 months, as opposed to the previous average of two to five years.

The mission “leverages Odyssey’s lessons learned, it takes us to the next step,” Guetlein said.

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