The agency awarded three contracts: $700 million to Lockheed Martin, $692 million to Northrop Grumman, and $382 million to York Space for the Tranche 1 transport layer
WASHINGTON – Department of Defense Space Development Agency announcement On February 28, it awarded Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and York Space Systems contracts worth nearly $1.8 billion to produce 126 satellites for a global communications network in low Earth orbit.
The agency awarded three contracts: $700 million to Lockheed Martin, $692 million to Northrop Grumman, and $382 million to York Space for the Tranche 1 transport layer. Each company is to deliver 42 satellites by 2024. A total of eight bidders competed for the three awards. .
The Space Development Agency (SDA) is building the Pentagon’s first ever Internet in space – a network of small satellites in low Earth orbit to support military communications, surveillance and tracking of enemy targets.
SDA plans to build the transport layer in batches or “slices”. The agency in 2020 ordered 20 Tranche 0 – 10 satellites each from Lockheed Martin and York Space. These are expected to launch later this year. For the much larger Unit 1, SDA added a third contractor, Northrop Grumman.
SDA director Derek Tournear said the plan was to launch tranche 1 from September 2024. The 126 spacecraft would be launched in six batches of 21 satellites at the rate of one launch per month.
The three satellite providers have obtained contracts called Other Transaction Authority. OTAs are used as an alternative to traditional FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) contracts. SDA originally solicited bids under the FAR method of procurement, but changed course after Maxar Technologies filed a demonstration in october alleging that the terms unfairly favored some companies over others.
The SDA has reissued the tender under the OTA approach, which gives government agencies more flexibility in evaluating and selecting contractors. The law on competition in procurement does not apply to OTA agreements, so they are less likely to be the subject of protests.
The SDA constellation, if successful, could become a model for how the DoD can deploy satellite networks that are more resilient to cyberattacks and other threats. The Transport Layer is a “spreading” constellation, meaning it has a large enough number of satellites that it would be extremely costly for an adversary to try to shoot it down.
The transport layer marks the first major DoD program to use smaller, less expensive satellites for mission-critical military operations. Most of the constellations deployed in recent decades have been made up of spacecraft the size of cars or school buses, each costing hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. SDA was created in 2019 precisely to exploit the emerging commercial space market and innovations in small satellites, and apply them to military systems
“SDA is changing the landscape of national defense space-based capability acquisition by capitalizing on a unique business model that leverages commercial development to realize a proliferating low Earth orbit architecture that improves resiliency and reduces latency to process and move data from the sensor to the shooter,” Tournear said.
The Tranche 1 constellation of 126 spacecraft will be split into six orbital planes to be launched into near-polar low Earth orbit. The satellites will have laser links so they can transmit data into space as a mesh network and minimize the need to transfer data through ground stations. Data collected by a satellite on the location of a target, for example, can be transmitted instantaneously to anyone who needs to shoot down that target.
“We want to be able to detect, track, and target anything that’s a mobile missile launcher or a ship and be able to send those targeting solutions directly to a weapons platform,” Tournear said.
Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and York Space must equip their satellites with optical inter-satellite links that meet SDA-mandated technical specifications to ensure the satellites can talk to each other, regardless of which manufacturer made them.
Under the contract, the three companies are to operate and maintain their share of the Tranche 1 satellites. SDA plans to select a separate contractor to integrate and manage ground operations.
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Both Lockheed Martin and York Space will produce the Tranche 1 satellites in the Denver area. Northrop Grumman has not yet announced a manufacturing partner or production location for its satellites.
Blake Bullock, vice president of communications systems at Northrop Grumman, noted the company’s constellation track record, including assembly, integration and testing of 81 Iridium NEXT satellites that have been deployed in Earth orbit. low in 2019. Orbital Sciences Corp., a company later acquired by Northrop Grumman, produced these satellites under contract with Iridium prime contractor Thales Alenia Space.
Lockheed Martin’s tranche 1 satellites will use buses supplied by Tyvak, a small satellite manufacturer owned by Earth orbital.
Chris Winslett, program manager for Lockheed Martin, said SpaceNews that SDA’s transport layer marks a departure from traditional military space procurement. “Having seen this market evolve over the past 20 years, this is a new capability enabled by technology and manufacturing readiness levels.”
Technologies such as inter-satellite laser links are finally coming to fruition and becoming widely available, Winslett said. Small satellites are now advanced enough to function as computers in space, capable of doing things like mesh networking and combat management command and control aboard satellites. “It all came together at the right time to make this mesh network happen,” he said.
SDA is now able to “leverage technologies ready to create a new architecture,” Winslett said.
Chuck Beames, executive chairman of York Space Systems, said the SDA contract is “a big deal for the small satellite industry and for the role of small satellites in meeting national security needs.”
While Lockheed and Northrop are two of the Pentagon’s prime contractors, York Space is an outsider. The company was founded in 2012 with the goal of bringing satellites closer to consumer electronics, which was made possible by component miniaturization and mass production.
Until now, small satellites have been “interesting things to demonstrate, but the transport layer is a real operational mission constellation,” Beames said. SpaceNews. “It’s not a demo or just an exercise.”
The planned SDA architecture changes the way the DoD procures satellites and is also a key step in how the DoD provides connectivity to military forces in the field, Beames said.
“What it does is it allows anyone in the military to be able to communicate through this network with anyone,” he added. “It’s intended for operational users, not just the Pentagon, but people in the field and combat commands in the field.”