Spaceflight Insider

R3D2 satellite demonstrates ‘rapid’ spacecraft development

The R3D2 DARPA satellite. Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman

The R3D2 DARPA satellite. Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman

Working together with several commercial spaceflight companies, Northrop Grumman successfully launched a small defense satellite for the U.S. government developed over a period of just 20 months.

According to Northrop Grumman, that is a record time for a satellite project to go from concept to launch, a process that usually takes several years.

The 331-pound (150-kilogram) Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) satellite, developed for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), was launched March 28, 2019, from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

DARPA is a Department of Defense (DOD) agency that develops new technologies for the U.S. military. R3D2 is a lightweight communications satellite that is smaller than the satellites currently used for defense missions and therefore more cost-effective. It launched atop a lightweight Electron rocket built by Rocket Lab.

Northrop Grumman said it was able to get R3D2 into orbit in such a short time because DARPA reduced the standard number of required project reviews and accepted a higher level of risk than usual.

“Our team’s success with the R3D2 program is a strong proof of concept that the rapid development of future space capabilities is possible,” said Northrop Grumman Vice President for resiliency and rapid prototyping Scott Stapp in a May 7, 2019, company statement. “We look forward to continuing to lead the cultural change necessary in the industry by partnering with the US government, commercial suppliers, and startups to deliver prototypes and demonstrations for critical national security missions.”

Stapp said taking “thoughtful risks” and eliminating bureaucracy allowed the Northrop Grumman team to streamline its processes to achieve the rapid schedule.

Other commercial suppliers on the team that developed R3D2 included Blue Canyon Technologies and Trident Systems. The former provided the satellite structure while the latter developed its software.

The R3D2 DARPA satellite being prepared for launch. Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman

The R3D2 DARPA satellite being prepared for launch. Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman



Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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