US Air Force awards space launch contract for small payloads

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The US Air Force (USAF) has made a major spacecraft purchase, and appears to be preparing to make another.

A contract worth up to $900 million for small spacecraft launch services, announced on 3 December, was awarded to Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX.

SpaceX, which declined to comment, is likely to have bid its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, which is currently the company's only offering. Orbital Sciences offered Minotaur-series vehicles, which are modified into space launch vehicles from retired US Peacekeeper and Minuteman ballistic missiles.

The award marks the likely resurrection of Lockheed's Athena rocket, a series of small launch vehicles discontinued in 2001 due to shifts in demand for small payload launchers. Lockheed has expressed strong interest in re-opening the Athena manufacturing line.

Though the USAF was unavailable to comment, at least two payloads are reportedly slated for launch under the contract, the Space Test Program 2 and Deep Space Climate Observatory.

Neither Orbital nor Lockheed responded to immediate questions.

According to industry publication Space News, USAF acquisition chief Frank Kendall has approved a block buy of evolved expendable launch vehicles (EELV), the US government's only launch systems for large payloads.

spacex falcon 9 launch, spacex 

 ©SpaceX

The EELVs, the Boeing-built Delta IV and Lockheed-built Atlas V, are both sold and launched by a single entity, United Launch Alliance (ULA). It holds a virtual monopoly on large US government launches and has come under significant criticism for cost overruns.

A block buy represents a major shift from current USAF purchasing practices. Instead of buying each rocket individually, a block buy allows for a guaranteed number of rockets, which the USAF hopes will bring about greater cost efficiency.

ULA has long advocated for a block buy because it allows the company to keep its spot as the primary launch organisation, fending off rival upstart SpaceX which is  launches at a much lower cost than ULA.

The most crucial payloads, which include reconnaissance satellites and high-value payloads for NASA, will remain on EELVs due to their reliability, but opening 14 launches for bid allows other qualified entrants into the lucrative government market.