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Space Force Wants to Launch Satellites Faster Than Anyone Has Ever Attempted

Firefly’s Alpha rocket delivering payloads to orbit on October 3, 2022.

Firefly’s Alpha rocket delivering payloads to orbit on October 3, 2022.
Image: Firefly

The prospect of losing critically important satellites during war has led to “Victus Nox”—a rapid response experiment in which private Space Force partners will need to launch a satellite within 24 hours of receiving the “go” order.

The concept is known as “tactically responsive space” (TacRS), and it’s a capability that Congress wants the Space Force to have. The capacity to perform rapid launch turnarounds, both in terms of preparing payloads and rockets, would be extremely advantageous in the event of a national emergency, such as an adversary shooting down a mission-critical satellite during war. The Pentagon announced its desire for TacRS in 2019, saying the ultimate objective is “24 hours from ‘call up’ notification to on-orbit capability.” The idea itself dates back to 2005.

To bring this idea to fruition, Space Systems Command’s Space Safari office, which is set up to respond to “high-priority, urgent space needs,” is conducting a responsive space demonstration in which a satellite will be “deployed on an operationally relevant timeline,” according to an SSC press release. The experiment is called “Victus Nox,” Latin for “conquer the night,” and it’s set to take place next year.

Space Force’s first TacRS demo occurred in June 2021, when a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket carrying an experimental space domain awareness satellite launched from the company’s specially modified Stargazer L-1011 aircraft. Space Force is thinking bigger for Victus Nox, as it wants a rocket, and not a plane, to deliver a payload to low Earth orbit. To that end, Space Force has signed contracts with Millennium Space and Firefly Aerospace, both of which need to demonstrate that they’re capable of performing their respective responsibilities on short notice.

“This end-to-end mission will demonstrate the United States’ ability to rapidly place an asset on-orbit when and where we need it, ensuring we can augment our space capabilities with very little notice,” said Lt. Col. MacKenzie Birchenough, Space Safari materiel leader, in the SSC press release.

Millennium Space, a subsidiary of Boeing, won the contract on August 15, and it will need to provide a small satellite bus equipped with a space domain awareness sensor, in addition to overseeing in-orbit operations. “The mission’s main focus is to deliver a satellite into operations on a tactically relevant timeline in order to demonstrate a credible response to new on-orbit threats,” Millennium Space explained in a statement.

For the experiment, Millennium will pull a satellite from its production line, modify it for the mission, and then deliver it to Space Force within eight months. The task of providing a satellite for launch typically takes years.

“Once given the go ahead from Space Force Leadership, the goal is to have the satellite and launch vehicle come together, mated, encapsulated, launched and placed into Low-Earth orbit within 24 hours.” The satellite will likely be used to locate and track other satellites and space debris that pose potential threats to U.S. assets in orbit.

Firefly, which signed its contract on September 29, needs to provide a single launch service within the 2023 calendar year as part of the Victus Nox TacRS mission. The Texas-based rocket company’s contract is worth $17.6 million, while the value of Millennium’s isn’t known.

Millennium Space needs to provide the satellite by the end of April. “That’s our deadline to make sure that everything is ready to go,” Birchenough recently told SpaceNews, saying the project will then shift into a “standby phase” that could last six months or longer. As SpaceNews reports, the timeline is meant to simulate

an actual operation when there would be “indications and warnings” that an attack could happen, Birchenough said. “At some point during that standby phase, we would get a phone call and Victus Nox would enter a short activation period of about 60 hours.”

It’s during that 60-hour period that the satellite would be transported to the launch site and integrated with the launch vehicle. “And then we go into an alert phase, which could last a few days or up to a couple of months.”

The 24-hour call-up would come during the alert phase, she said. “And after that we have a goal to be mission capable in a very short time period as well.”

Following Victus Nox, the Space Force will continue to develop its tactically responsive space capabilities, bringing in different launch providers and satellite manufacturers.

In October, Firefly used its Alpha rocket to deliver three payloads to Earth orbit, becoming just the fifth U.S. company to launch a rocket to orbit. That said, the payloads were deposited at a lower orbit than planned, causing them to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Hopefully, the same won’t happen during Victus Nox.

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