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  • Satellite Evolution

Electron rocket launches satellite for US Space Force from Rocket Lab USA’s New Zealand launch site

The US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and its mission partners successfully launched a Department of Defense research and development satellite on a Long Beach, California-based Rocket Lab USA Electron launch vehicle from the company’s private launch facility on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand at 11pm local time (6pm New Zealand time, 2am Eastern).

The mission, officially designated STP-27RM (for Space Test Program-27 Rocket Lab - Monolith), but named ‘It’s a Little Chile Up Here’ in a nod to the beloved green chile of New Mexico where the Space Test Program is based, was the second DoD flight from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-1. The Electron rocket successfully delivered its payload into low Earth orbit and is a follow-on to an earlier DoD mission that successfully lifted off on May 5, 2019 from the island country located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.

“Congratulations to our government and industry team on today’s successful launch,” said Lt. Col. Justin Beltz, chief of SMC Launch Enterprise’s Small Launch and Targets Division. “With this mission, the US Space Force and Rocket Lab USA demonstrated the ability to successfully launch innovative government missions and deliver the flexibility and resiliency that is needed by the Space Force.”

The DoD’s Space Test Program and Rocket Systems Launch Program, both based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico under USSF’s Space and Missile Systems Center, procured the mission in partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) as part of the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI). This initiative leveraged DIU’s Commercial Solutions Opening process to competitively and rapidly award DoD launch prototype agreements with non-traditional, commercial companies within 18 months after initial award.

The experimental satellite, named Monolith, was sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and built by Space Dynamics Laboratory, a nonprofit government contractor owned by Utah State University in North Logan, Utah.

Monolith is an AFRL program designed to explore the application of small satellites for DoD programs. The demonstration will determine if the 6U (2x3x1) or 12U (2x3x2) bus sizes can be configured such that a large deployable sensor can be installed in one of the 2x3x1 side faces. The use of a deployable sensor, where the sensor’s mass is a substantial fraction of the total mass of the spacecraft, changing the spacecraft’s dynamic properties will enable the US to use a smaller bus when building future deployable sensors such as weather satellites, thereby reducing the cost, complexity, and development timelines. The satellite will also provide a platform to test future space protection capabilities.

“Our continuing partnership with Rocket Lab USA demonstrates SMC’s dedication to grow our Nation’s space capabilities both in Government, and the private sector,” said Col. Timothy Sejba, SMC’s program executive officer for Space Development. “This mission proves the functionality of innovative space launch for the Government by working with an agile company that is working diligently to meet the needs of the DoD.”

As the US Space Force looks to the future of the nation’s defense, efforts like the small launch RALI missions serve as pathfinders for using commercial small launch vehicles in support of US Space Command requirements. SMC and the emerging small launch providers who are shattering the status quo by providing low-cost, dedicated launches for smaller payloads to low Earth orbit will continue to push the envelope with challenging missions and innovative partnerships that will form the backbone of rapid, responsive, and resilient space access for the United States.

The Space and Missile Systems Center, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, California is the US Space Force’s center of acquisition excellence for acquiring and developing military space systems. Its portfolio includes the development of advanced space and launch capabilities and systems, global positioning systems, military satellite communications, defense meteorological satellites, space launch and range systems, satellite control networks, space-based infrared systems, and space domain awareness capabilities.


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