During a conflict, the U.S. must be able to augment satellite capabilities on short notice – a strategy known as Tactically Responsive Space, or TacRS. Built by Millennium Space Systems, VICTUS NOX is the next TacRS mission, demonstrating that a small satellite can be a credible rapid-response to new on-orbit threats.
“In a real-world conflict, we simply do not have the luxury of time,” said Lt Col MacKenzie Birchenough, Materiel Leader for Space Safari, Space Systems Command. “That’s why we’re conducting this tactically responsive space mission. If we identify and get through all the bumps now, we will be ready to respond to new on-orbit threats in the future.”
The effort is supported by the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, calling for the U.S. Space Force to fund a TacRS program. And Space Force leadership continuously stresses the importance – and industry advancements – of rapid response capabilities.
“We’re on track to deliver the satellite in just eight months,” said Jason Kim, chief executive officer of Millennium Space Systems. “This program is helping the whole team understand what go-fast capabilities already exist and what still needs to be done to achieve a tactically responsive space mission.”
During a January 2023 media interview, U.S. Space Command Deputy Commander Lt Gen John Shaw said he was “encouraged by the growth in the commercial launch and small satellite industries and their potential to support a faster development and launch cadence.” One noteworthy aspect that Lt Gen Shaw highlighted was “the ability to produce small spacecraft more quickly.”
It’s this ability to produce small satellites faster that companies must have to achieve the TacRS mission. Doing so requires a hybrid-company approach – combining the best of commercial and traditional aerospace industries – plus at-scale production capabilities and a workforce that can rapidly deliver satellites.
The Hybrid Approach
During a 2022 Mitchell Institute event, SPACECOM Commander Gen James Dickinson said that the U.S. “needs commercial mission partners to build the capabilities to replenish our military space assets.”
“This is why I think hybrid companies are ideally positioned to support national security space missions,” said Kim. “We couple commercial processes and technologies with traditional aerospace mission knowledge, assurance and security, to deliver small sats quicker and more affordably.”
As an example, Millennium Space Systems uses readily-available commercial software, which speeds up flight software development and has the added benefit of attracting talent from the commercial industry. The company also uses the latest commercial technologies, quickly space-qualifying and applying them – a big time and cost saver.
Doing business like traditional aerospace, the company partners with customers to understand the mission and deliver mission assurance.
“For industry to support rapid response missions, it’s essential to understand the end-mission goals,” said Matt Smith, vice president of Engineering at Millennium Space Systems. “Since our founding, we partner with customers to understand their mission needs and how to design to those needs.”
A Ready Production Line
To accommodate TacRS missions, industry must have a ready production line.
“Manufacturing must be flexible to adapt to changing mission needs,” said Gabrielle Carlisle, vice president, Manufacturing, Supply Chain & Logistics at Millennium Space Systems. “The key is having common-core products on hand. If a TacRS mission calls for a satellite immediately, we can seamlessly integrate these products to deliver on much faster timelines.”
Common-core products extend to subassemblies like electrical systems and integrated propulsion systems.
Vertical integration allows Millennium Space Systems to control production processes, enabling time and cost savings. And, the company is less vulnerable to supply chain disruptions or unexpected issues that component manufacturers might have.
“With common architectures, we can reallocate a given assembly based on urgent customer needs,” said Carlisle. “VICTUS NOX is a great example of this. We were able to quickly pull a satellite from our production line and minimally modify it.”
Having a flexible flight computer, avionics and core bus architecture that can adapt to any mission also helps.
“Think of this like building a computer based on specific individual needs,” said Carlisle. “We can quickly add or subtract different components to tailor the computer to those needs.”
Carlisle also emphasized the need to continually improve processes. The company frequently acquires new tools and digitizes processes for manufacturing to be faster, more efficient and safer. It also means streamlining processes.
“To move faster, it’s important to not overburden manufacturing processes with unnecessary requirements,” said Carlisle. “We empower our manufacturing engineers and technicians to make decisions. That doesn’t mean bypassing critical approvals, simply eliminating unnecessary work.”
To achieve TacRS capabilities, industry can learn from recent go-fast successes. The Space Force’s Tetra-1 small satellite, launched last November, is a good case study in rapid acquisition and development. Built and delivered by Millennium Space Systems in less than 15 months, Tetra-1 was the first Other Transaction Authority, or OTA, contract with the Space Enterprise Consortium. OTAs allow for rapid prototyping and open the door to more non-traditional vendors.
“Rapid acquisition is a significant first step to deliver satellites quickly,” said Mike Gabor, vice president, Business Development at Millennium Space Systems. “Once contracted on Tetra-1, we took advantage of Millennium strengths to build the satellite, including using our common-core components already proven on other programs.”
A strong partnership between government and industry was also key to Tetra-1’s success.
“We talked to our customer daily, making sure we quickly resolved any concerns,” said Gabor. “We’re now applying lessons from Tetra-1 to VICTUS NOX, collaborating closely with our customer and launch partner to meet the rapid delivery and launch timelines.” For any launch, but especially rapid response missions, it is important ensure properly allocated resources for critical activities at the last phase – shipping, fueling, final bus checkout and launch vehicle integration.
“These critical activities are, by definition, critical path to the launch T-0 date,” said Smith. “If there are resource constraints for those operations, they’ll have a one-to-one impact on schedule delay.”
When it comes to readying the satellite for launch, TacRS missions also need the right infrastructure in place – satellite transportation, storage and launch vehicle integration.
Talent Delivers Rapid Response
The last element to enabling TacRS missions is people. Companies must attract new talent, while empowering their workforce to move fast.
“The small sat industry needs to hire talent that might not normally go into defense – think of engineers and technicians coming from tech companies,” said Kyle Yang, chief engineer at Millennium Space Systems. “One thing we’re doing to catch people’s interest is highlighting boundary-pushing missions like VICTUS NOX. The message is: you get to own large portions of scope on a program and can see the result of your work launch into space within months.”
Working on an end-to-end program, from design to mission operations, gives the workforce visibility to multiple processes within the business.
“We are bringing up a workforce with broad systems knowledge and experience, as opposed to being siloed on one part of the satellite with no visibility of what’s happening across the program,” said Yang. “This talent can then take lessons learned from one satellite’s development and on-orbit operations and bring the knowledge to their next program.”
Emphasizing the importance of TacRS missions can also help recruit talent.
“It’s critical to communicate the importance of the mission,” said Smith. “Working on national security space missions matters because they directly impact our country’s security.”