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Space Force 'tactically responsive' launch quickly puts satellite in orbit

A U.S. Space Force satellite was put into earth orbit on Sunday by a Pegasus XL rocket fired from a Northrop Grumman L-1011 aircraft. Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman
A U.S. Space Force satellite was put into earth orbit on Sunday by a Pegasus XL rocket fired from a Northrop Grumman L-1011 aircraft. Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman

June 14 (UPI) -- A satellite, launched by a rocket fired from an aircraft, was put in orbit in a first-of-its-kind mission by the U.S. Space Force's Space and Missile Center.

The Tactically Responsive Launch-2 payload at Vandenburg Space Force Base, Calif., was launched into low earth orbit by a three-stage Pegasus XL rocket released at about 40,000 feet in altitude by a modified Northrop Grumman L-1011 "Stargazer" aircraft on Sunday, the Space Force said in a statement.

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Pegasus XL is the first privately-developed, three-stage commercial space launch vehicle, and constructed to launch satellites with minimal ground support requirements and short timelines. The rocket is used to deploy small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds. The Northrop Grumman-built rocket can typically deliver a satellite into orbit in a little over 10 minutes, a company statement said.

The concept of tactically responsive launches is meant to provide speed and flexibility to launch missions, with shortened timelines and quick responses to changes in the space domain. "Today's successful launch is a clear signal to our strategic competitors that we will not cede access to space," said Gen. John W. Raymond, Space Force Chief of Space Operations. "The team presented an integrated Space Domain Awareness satellite ready for launch in record time; what normally would have required two to five years took 11 months."

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"The space domain is defined by speed, and with this effort, we demonstrated the kind of speed it will take to win, "Raymond added. "We executed a '21-day call-up' to get a satellite on orbit - pulling the payload, mating it with the rocket and integrating the combined package onto the aircraft. Agile, responsive capability development, combined with our ability to rapidly launch and insert capabilities into space where we want, when we want, will deny our competitors the perceived benefits of beginning a conflict in, or extending a conflict to, space."

The TacRL-2 mission was executed by the Small Launch and Targets Division within the Space and Missile Systems Center's Launch Enterprise, in partnership with SMC's Space Safari Office. It launched a satellite built and operated by the Air Force Research Laboratory and Space Dynamics Laboratory. Additional missions, to demonstrate tactical space mobility and logistics capability, are planned for 2022 and 2023.

A weather satellite was first launched in a similar manner in 2019, with an L-1011 plane launching a rocket, which flew for about 10 minutes before releasing its payload.

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