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Other Space Activities

STP-27RD (Space Test Program-27 Research & Development of DoD)

Last updated:May 7, 2019

Initiatives and Programs

STP-27RD (Space Test Program-27 Research & Development of DoD)


The STP is part of the United States Department of Defense (DoD), and ensures that potential launch and satellite platform providers will be able to meet the needs of government customers.

The USAF (US Air Force) booked this STP mission with Rocket Lab in 2017 under the military's RALI (Rapid Agile Launch Initiative) program. The STP-27RD mission was the first for the RALI program, which procured launch services from commercial providers to offer military satellites a faster ride to orbit.

Air Force officials said last month that five RALI launches were planned before the end of 2019, including the STP-27RD mission with Rocket Lab's Electron launcher and a flight on Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne vehicle later in the year. The five missions will provide access to space for 21 research and development satellites, according to Lt. Col. Andrew Anderson, chief of the Department of Defense Space Test Program branch. The RALI missions "will put DoD experiments on orbit and demonstrate new launch vehicles from new commercial providers," Anderson told reporters in a conference call last month.



A Rocket Lab Electron rocket successfully launched three technology demonstration satellites for the Defense Department on 5 May 2019 as part of an effort by the military to demonstrate responsive launch. The launch site was Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. The STP-27 RD mission carried Rocket Lab's heaviest payload to date, with a total mass of over 180 kg for the three satellites. 1) 2) 3)

Orbit: Near-circular orbit, altitude of 500 km, inclination of 40º.

Like all Electron missions, the rocket itself has received a special name. This rocket is named "That's a Funny Looking Cactus", for the deserts of New Mexico – where the STP is based. 4)

To insert the satellites into a precise orbit, this mission included Rocket Lab's Curie engine-powered kick stage. The specific orbit has not been made public, although it is known to be a Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Figure 1: The mission patch for Electron's STP-27RD mission - via Rocket Lab (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Figure 1: The mission patch for Electron's STP-27RD mission - via Rocket Lab (image credit: Rocket Lab)

This launch marked the sixth flight of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket since 2017, and the second of this year. Rocket Lab, headquartered in the United States with factories in Southern California and Auckland, New Zealand, aims to launch about one mission per month through the rest of 2019, ramping up to a cadence of every two weeks by the end of the year.

On its first nighttime launch, Rocket Lab's Electron booster climbed into orbit from New Zealand with a trio of small U.S. military payloads, demonstrating the privately-developed rocket's ability to help meet the Air Force's growing demand for smallsat launches. The launch vehicle carried three small satellites, for the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. The STP (Space Test Program), a unit based at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico (AFRL) which provides access to space for military experiments, managed the multi-satellite launch with Rocket Lab.




Harbinger Minisatellite Mission

Built by York Space Systems in Denver, the Harbinger mission is sponsored by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command with a total mass of ~150 kg. The minisatellite hosts several technology demonstration payloads, including an X-band SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) instrument of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, Huntsville, AL (Redstone Arsenal) for all-weather Earth observation and a high-data-rate communications link to transmit the radar imagery to users on the ground.

The CDR (Critical Design Review) of Harbinger was passed in early 2018, when representatives of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Systems Defense Command and other government agencies confirmed that the Harbinger mission was on track to meet government requirements. The Harbinger mission with a mass of 150 kg, including its 65 kg bus, features Iceye of Finland's synthetic aperture radar, Denver-based BridgeSat's optical communications and Enpulsion of Austria's Field Emission Electric Propulsion. Iceye, Bridgesat and Enpulsion participated in the Harbinger mission's CDR, demonstrating to government customers that their technologies should be cleared for fabrication and integration. 5)

Figure 2: The Harbinger satellite during ground testing (image credit: York Space Systems)
Figure 2: The Harbinger satellite during ground testing (image credit: York Space Systems)

The Harbinger satellite's radar imaging instrument comes from ICEYE, a Finnish company which has built and launched its own commercial radar observation smallsats. The radar imaging payload on Harbinger "provides commercial access to timely and reliable Earth observation data and is capable of imaging any location on Earth at regular intervals, day or night, regardless of cloud cover," according to the Army's fact sheet on the mission.

A high-speed laser communications terminal on Harbinger from BridgeSat will downlink the radar imagery, demonstrating a rapid data collection capability that could be used by tactical military forces on the battlefield.


SPARC-1 (Space Plug and Play Architecture Research CubeSat-1)

SPARC-1 is a joint U.S.-Swedish military research nanosatellite, a 6U CubeSat based on Pumpkin's SUPERNOVA bus. The objective is to test miniaturized avionics, a SDR (Software Defined Radio) system, and a visible camera to study space situational awareness concepts. The mission's U.S. sponsor is the AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory), which developed the mission in partnership with the Swedish Defense Materiel Administration. The prime contractor was ÅAC Microtec AB, Uppsala, Sweden.

The spacecraft design encompasses a blending of technologies and components developed by both countries, with primary payloads of direct interest to each nation. The US payload, referred to as an ASR (Agile Space Radio) is an on-orbit reconfigurable transceiver, intended to support live experimentation with different waveforms and protocols useful to communications missions. The Swedish payload is a visible camera optimized for the study of SSA (Space Situation Awareness) concepts. 6)

Figure 3: Artist's illustration of the SPARC-1 spacecraft in orbit (image credit: University of New Mexico/COSMIAC)
Figure 3: Artist's illustration of the SPARC-1 spacecraft in orbit (image credit: University of New Mexico/COSMIAC)

SPARC-1 is intended to represent a step towards rapidly composable and service oriented spacecraft networks. Consistent with the plug-and-play model of the personal computer, the aspiration of the SPARC series (and the broader umbrella of research being done between the US and Sweden in the Nanosatellite And Plug-and-play Architecture or "NAPA" program) is to pioneer a methodology for creating mission capable 6U spacecraft. The methodology involves interchangeable blackbox (selfdescribing) components, software (middleware and applications), advanced push-button tools supporting accelerated design flows, and elements of ground systems architecture capable of working fluidly with networks of potentially hundreds of these platforms.


Falcon ODE (Orbital Debris Experiment) CubeSat Mission

The Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment (Falcon ODE), sponsored by the USAFA (United States Air Force Academy), will evaluate ground-based tracking of space objects.

The Falcon ODE is a 1U-CubeSat with a mass of 1 kg, built by the US Air Force Academy, to provide calibrated radar and optical targets for ground-based SSA (Space Situational Awareness) sensors.

The aim of the CubeSat is to release two stainless-steel ball bearings that will be tracked from the ground to watch for changes in background atmospheric density over time. The goal of the experiment is to fine-tune techniques for monitoring orbital debris and getting a better fix on SSA.



1) Stephen Clark, "Rocket Lab deploys experimental U.S. military smallsats on first night launch," Spaceflight Now, 5 May 2019, URL:

2) "Launch Information," Rocket Lab, 5 May 2019, URL:

3) "Rocket Lab to launch three R&D satellites for the U.S. Air Force," SpaceRef, Press Release from Rocket Lab, 3 April 2019, URL:

4) Ian Atkinson, "Rocket Lab launches STP-27RD test satellite trio for the DoD," NASA, 5 May 2019, URL:

5) Debra Werner, "Key hurdle cleared for York Space Systems and U.S. Army small satellite launch," Space News, 22 February 2018, URL:


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (