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Pentagon awards $282 million for satellite constellation

Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems will share $281.6 million in contracts from the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency to build the first 20 satellites for a new military data network with global reach.

The network will be capable of sending targeting data directly from a remote-sensing satellite in space to a weapons platform on the ground, making use of laser communications between satellites in low Earth orbit. By the late 2020s, the system is expected to play a key role in countering emerging threats such as hypersonic attack vehicles.

The National Defense Space Architecture is the first major project for the Space Development Agency, which was created last year to foster military technologies on the high frontier.

“This is a very important step toward building the National Defense Space Architecture. It represents one of the Space Development Agency’s first major contract activities, and it might also highlight the importance of SDA — its ability to quickly obligate appropriate funds and execute toward their mission,” Mark Lewis, acting deputy under secretary of defense for research and engineering, told reporters.

“As the Netflix ‘Space Force’ series likes to say, space is hard,” he said. “Space is hard, but sometimes we make it harder than it has to be. The SDA is showing us that sometimes we don’t need to make it that hard.”

The two Colorado-based companies receiving awards today will build 10 satellites each for the first phase of the project, known as Tranche 0. Lockheed Martin is due to receive $187,542,641 under the terms of a firm, fixed-price contract. York Space Systems, a relative newcomer in the satellite industry, will receive $94,036,666.

Tranch 0’s data-transport-layer satellites are to be launched no later than September 2022, with a “capstone” demonstration of the mesh network’s capabilities planned in late 2022 or early 2023.

SDA Director Derek Tournear said today’s contracts represent the first step for a network that will comprise hundreds of satellites by 2026.

“We’re pushing on completely developing a new architecture that breaks the old model,” Tournear said. A big part of the new model will involve relying on commercial providers and “spiral development” to add innovations as the constellation is built out, he said.

“We’ll see this as an era of new space, basically showing the concept that you can utilize commoditized components in a very rapid manner to meet military utility and military specifications,” Tournear said.

Each set of 10 spacecraft will include seven equipped with the hardware for four laser-enabled optical cross-links between satellites. The other three satellites will have two optical cross-links, plus a standard Link 16 transceiver to communicate with ground installations.

Tournear said the satellites will be interoperable with other commercial and military space assets — including remote-sensing spacecraft, military communication satellites and commercial telecom constellations. He told me his team is talking with ventures including SpaceX, which already has launched hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit for its Starlink broadband network. (Other parts of the U.S. military are testing Starlink’s capabilities for military applications.)

The Space Development Agency says the satellites will be sent into orbits ranging from 600 to 1,200 kilometers (370 to 740 miles) in altitude. That’s higher than the altitude that was recommended last week for minimizing negative effects on astronomical observations. But Tournear noted that the Tranch 0 satellites will be smaller and less numerous than, say, Starlink satellites.

The first batches of satellites won’t make use of the brightness-reducing measures that SpaceX has been implementing, he said. But there’ll be many more satellites to come.

“We’re going to be building out roughly one satellite a week for each of the [orbital] layers … and then launching them out on a cadence that allows us to replenish and add new capabilities that we’re going to be soliciting,” Tournear said.

In its contract announcement, the Department of Defense said the work of building the Tranche 0 satellites would be done in seven U.S. states plus Germany, Canada and Spain.

About 3.3% of York’s work is to be performed in Bothell, Wash., the Pentagon said. Bothell-based Tethers Unlimited has partnered with York previously, and Tethers CEO Bob Hoyt told me that his company has been in on some of York’s proposals for the National Defense Space Architecture. But he said he hasn’t yet heard whether Tethers Unlimited will play a role in the contract awarded today.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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