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Need for Speed: US Space Force Launches Tactical Satellite in Just 21 Days

The rocket carrying the payload launched mid-air from a modified airplane.

Need for Speed: US Space Force Launches Tactical Satellite in Just 21 Days
The Stargazer aircraft the payload launched from U.S. Space Force

The U.S. Space Force demonstrated its ability to design and build a satellite in just four months, and launch it within 21 days of getting the go-ahead.

The Space Force announced on June 13 that it successfully launched the Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) satellite from Northrop Grumman's Pegasus XL rocket, which itself was launched mid-air from the company's modified "Stargarzer" L-1011 aircraft.

The Stargazer and its payload took off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base on June 13 at 4:11 AM EST. After reaching heights of around 40,000 feet (12,000 meters) above the Pacific Ocean, the Pegasus rocket was dropped from the aircraft, ignited its first stage, and carried the TaxRL-2 up to its intended low-Earth orbit, stated Northrop Grumman.

The U.S. Space Force's concept for its tactically responsive launch is to introduce speed, agility, and flexibility to be able to respond accordingly to unexpected changes in the space domain. The hope is to send or replace assets like satellites in orbit in a much swifter way than currently possible. 

Need for Speed: US Space Force Launches Tactical Satellite in Just 21 Days
Northrop Grumman's modified Stargazer aircraft. Source: Northrop Grumman

Given the importance satellites play in military operations, it's understandable that the major powers are looking for ways to develop and launch payloads ultra quickly. Now, it looks like the Space Force has demonstrated it's capable of doing so, reducing methods and systems that usually take years or months to come to fruition down to a few short months and even weeks. 

"The space domain is defined by speed," said Chief of Space Operations Gen. John "Jay" Raymond. "And with this effort, we demonstrated the kind of speed it will take to win. 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," he continued.

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The recent mission was carried out by the Small Launch and Targets Division within the Space and Missile Systems Center’s (SMC) Launch Enterprise, and the Space Safari Office. The satellite was built by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Space Dynamics Laboratory.

On the Northrop Grumman side, this was the Pegasus rocket's 45th launch, and the team explained it was able to ready itself at such short notice because the rocket uses solid propulsion. "This offers maximum responsiveness by enabling launch to a wide variety of orbits on short timelines," read the company statement.

This offers a wide and flexible field of operations, as the rocket requires minimal ground requirements, just an airport runway. 

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