The launch of NROL-199 has been postponed until August 2 to allow the NRO to perform the required payload software upgrades
WASHINGTON – Rocket Lab and the National Reconnaissance Office had hoped launch two missions within 10 days. The first, NROL-162, took off on July 12 but the second, NROL-199, required payload software upgrades and was not ready for launch as planned on July 22. The mission is now set to launch on August 2 on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from the company’s launch site in New Zealand.
The ability to launch two NRO missions in a short period of time is an opportunity for Rocket Lab to demonstrate that space launch can be made more agile, but the delay of NROL-199 illustrates the challenges of a responsive launch, said the Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. SpaceNews July 28.
As soon as the NROL-199 payload upgrades were completed, the mission was rescheduled fairly quickly as Rocket Lab operates its own launch complex. But Beck’s point is that all talk of reactive launch often ignores the reality that if satellites aren’t ready in time, they can’t take advantage of rapid launch capabilities.
Rocket Lab announced a responsive space program earlier this month for commercial and government satellite operators who want the ability to launch payloads on short notice. Beck said the concept of responsive space isn’t new, but how to implement it continues to be a topic of discussion.
The US military becomes more interested in responsive launch as something it might need in a future conflict should enemies attack US systems with anti-satellite weapons. In the midst of these concerns, Congress added more than $100 million to the defense budget in recent years for responsive space launch and plans to add even more.
Beck called it “a bit of madness that when someone talks about reactive space, everyone goes rocket ship.” Rapid pitcher rotation is a problem that has been fixed, he said. “If there was a launch needed at very short notice, we can do it tomorrow. What’s not solved is the spacecraft. If you need to put a particular sensor or a particular capability in orbit, how do you do this in a way that doesn’t count in months?”
Rocket Lab believes the answer to reactive space services is to offer a complete end-to-end package, including satellite and launch. The company in 2019 started manufacturing Small photonic satellites in Huntington Beach, California.
“That’s one of the reasons we started vertical integration,” Beck said. “We needed reaction wheels for a satellite and it was a nine month lead time.” Reaction wheels are components used for attitude control of spacecraft. Rocket Lab in 2020 acquired maker Sinclair interplanetary “so we can make sure the reaction wheels are on the shelf for us at all times.”
Another key acquisition was SolAero, a major manufacturer of solar power systems for spacecraft. When producing a satellite, Beck said, the solar power unit is “usually what you want first, and it’s usually a very long-lead item.”
“What we’re really doing here is positioning ourselves for a customer to come up to us and be like, ‘Hey, I need this capability,'” Beck said. “And it can be a defense customer or a commercial customer.”
There was a time when launching a mission 18 months after receiving a customer order was considered very responsive, but the world is changing rapidly, he said. “I mean look at how quickly Ukraine and Russia have escalated. You don’t have 18 months, we’re talking weeks to maybe a small number of months before you actually need to respond with a capacity.
The other element is the license for a space mission, which can delay any schedule, Beck noted. “The way you move is you have a pre-determined spaceship that you know you’re launching and you can have it pre-licensed,” he added. “It’s a problem that can be solved. It just requires maintaining a certain level of preparedness.
Small Virgin Orbit satellite launcher, which launches rockets from carrier aircraftargues that its LauncherOne service is more responsive than vertical launchers because an aircraft can take off from any runway and does not require a fixed launch infrastructure.
Beck said there are both pros and cons to any type of launch configuration. “I don’t necessarily want to overshadow our competitors,” he said. But launching a space mission from an airport can be just as difficult as from a conventional platform. “Having trailers and trailers of stuff sitting at an airport is no different than having trailers and trailers of stuff sitting at a launch site.”
Few companies have demonstrated they can provide responsive access to space, Beck said. “It’s something that’s easy to talk about, but hard to do.”