AFRL Asks Industry How It Can Improve Responsive Launches

The Space Force successfully launched its Tactically Responsive Launch-2 mission from a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket in June 2021. The Air Force Research Laboratory wants to improve responsive launch capability.
Credit: U.S. Space Force

COLORADO SPRINGS—The Air Force Research Laboratory wants to improve its responsive space launch capability and is reaching out to industry to find investments in technology that could improve the ability to rapidly and more effectively send military capabilities into orbit.

AFRL’s Rocket Lab on April 6 released a request for information for “Solutions to Enhance Responsive Space systems,” outlining two scenarios that are beyond that which the military can currently meet. 

The first scenario is the launch of a small spacecraft to a specific targeted high-energy orbit in a “timely manner.” AFRL wants industry to outline how it could send a small EELV Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA)-sized spacecraft to “challenging orbital destinations” such as geosynchronous orbit, medium Earth orbit, or L1, L2 or HALO orbits within the cislunar sphere of influence. AFRL wants the timeline to be within days to weeks and at a cost of less than $100 million per launch. The scenario could consist of two launches, including a primary rapid response spacecraft and a subsequent refueler spacecraft, the RFI says.

The second scenario is the deployment of a tactical responsive layer of multiple small spacecraft via multiple globally disparate launches “with minimal to no warning to the adversary,” the RFI says. AFRL wants small spacecraft, ranging from cubesat to ESPA class, and delivered to LEO and very low Earth orbit with both circular and elliptical capability. This launch would need to be within hours to days from when a need is identified. The launch would also need to be affordable, at a cost of less than $100 million. 

AFRL imagines this system would be distributed to various launch sites in advance of a warning order, so they need to be easily transportable via the existing defense logistical system. At least two but up to five launches would be near simultaneous, within hours of an order, with each launch deploying between one to five spacecraft, the RFI says.

AFRL is considering multiple capability demonstrations to determine related improvements to the current state-of-the-art responsive space capabilities. The RFI asks industry to identify current state-of-the art capabilities, technology investment areas to improve responsiveness, digital engineering approaches for space launch systems and alternative approaches to the final delivery of assets to a military-relevant orbit that does not significantly increase cost. 

The RFI has a response deadline of May 6.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.