Air Force Could Soon Build New Spacecraft From Scratch in 60 Days
That usually requires the manufacturing of a whole new bus, which is loosely defined as the infrastructure that supports the spacecraft. The service's Space Test Program Standard Interface Vehicle (STP-SIV) has taken the opposite approach. It has developed a standardized bus and the payloads must instead conform to it.
That greatly reduces the amount of time it takes to create a satellite from scratch, said Col. Carol P. Welsch, commander of the space development group at the Air Force's space development and directorate wing at Kirtland, Air Force Base. Once the call goes out, parts can be taken off the shelf and a bus constructed in about 60 days. In the past, the Air Force would have asked its contractors to make a whole new bus, and the process could take years.
The new vehicle is intended for experimental payloads only. The service has a list of 73 capabilities it would like to send into orbit to verify their utility and effectiveness in a space environment. The first spacecraft sent up in November had two such payloads. The second does not have a spot on a launch vehicle yet, Welsch said.
The Air Force has been pushing for a more operationally responsive space infrastructure where needs can be filled in a matter of months rather than years.
The STP vehicle could be adapted for such a concept, she said. If a communication satellite were to cease operations, for example, a replacement could be sent up quickly as long as the payload is in the 60 to 70 kilogram range.
Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., the contractor that developed the satellite, would like to see the program expand.
"I see is as fulfilling the problem of responsive space," said David Kaufman, the senior program manager at Ball. The second spacecraft beat the 60 day construction requirement, he noted. It was put together in 47 days, and its three payloads integrated in about four days.
The key is that those who are developing the payloads have to make tradeoffs to fit the bus, Welsch said. They may not be able to run every part of their experiment, she said.
But to have operationally responsive space, the second part of the equation is launch. That has not been solved yet, as the manifest for the STP program shows. The crowded launch facilities the Air Force uses and budget constraints means that there is no firm date for when the second STP spacecraft will go to orbit.
The Air Force went ahead and integrated the payloads onto the second spacecraft because it wanted to keep the production line going. To end it while waiting for an opportunity to launch it would be more expensive than keeping it in storage, Welsch said.