The U.S. Space Force (USSF) wants to accelerate the rate at which it puts satellites and other assets into orbit.
Budget documents sent to Congress earlier this month show that the Space Force is requesting $60 million dollars for its “tactically responsive space” program, according to a SpaceNews report (opens in new tab). The program has already launched one successful demonstration mission, and has a second mission expected no earlier than May.
The funding is the first direct budget request for the tactically responsive space program, which has already flown one successful demonstration mission, with another expected no earlier than May. The tactically responsive space program aims to help the Space Force place satellites and other spacecraft into orbit at much faster rates as a countermeasure to potential adversarial offensives in space. The program explores the ability of commercial launch vehicle providers to ready the necessary infrastructure to place a payload in orbit with relatively little notice.
Related: What is the U.S. Space Force and what does it do?
There are several advantageous military applications for such a capability, which has been of growing interest among the defense sector for some time. Numerous developments in competitors’ anti-satellite weapons and other capabilities have raised concerns in the Pentagon that America’s space-based assets are currently vulnerable to a variety of attacks. Now that America’s military depends so heavily upon space-based assets, the ability to replace a satellite or extend the capabilities of another in potential conflict scenarios has become a major priority.
Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) was the first demo mission for the USSF, and flew in 2021 aboard a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket. That mission “successfully demonstrated their end-to-end approach to tactically responsive missions by acquiring and integrating the space vehicle, launch vehicle, payloads and ground elements in record time,” according to a USSF statement (opens in new tab) at the time.
The TacRL-3 mission, being called Victus Nox — Latin for “conquer the night” — is slated to launch aboard a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket, possibly within a few months. Firefly won the contract for the mission in September last year, alongside satellite manufacturer and Boeing subsidiary Millennium Space Systems. The pair were given eight months to prepare launch services and ground systems, and will be given just twenty-four hours notice to launch the payload to orbit.
USSF’s TacRL-2 press release states that “Tactically Responsive Launch is the first step toward the USSF acquiring a tactical space mobility and logistics capability to support combatant command’s future requirements for tactical spacepower.” The $60 million budget request for dedicated funds to the project ensures its next launch won’t be its last, with $30 million bookmarked for 2024, and $30 million for 2025.
The allocation was initially suggested as part of the House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC) National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 (opens in new tab). It reads, in part, that “the Space Force should continue these efforts, and broaden the program beyond the logistics of launch and operations to also focus on lifecycle concepts of operation, as well as any contractual mechanisms that should be required in future programs to take into account the need for rapid reconstitution and responsiveness.”
As part of its wider goal of expanding its space infrastructure base, the Space Force recently granted four additional private companies access to its launch pads at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.