A high-profile effort to spread thousands of satellites close to Earth for better communications, missile tracking, and more is getting underway with contracts to Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems.
The Space Development Agency on Aug. 31 awarded $187.5 million to Lockheed and $94 million to York for 10 small test satellites apiece as part of “Tranche 0” of SDA’s low Earth orbit proliferation plan.
Satellites are slated to begin launching in 2022. They are the first batch in SDA’s “transport layer” of data-sharing satellites that will pass targeting and tracking data and other communications down to military personnel on Earth.
Fourteen “A-class” satellites will feature optical crosslinks to talk to other satellites on the same plane as they travel past each other, as well as those in different planes and orbits. Those are due to SDA for launch by September 2022. Six “B-class” satellites will have optical crosslinks as well as tactical data links to talk to the ground using a Link 16 transmitter, SDA Director Derek Tournear told reporters on an Aug. 31 call.
The amount of money each company received is based on their proposals’ anticipated requirements and schedules. While Lockheed is a longtime player in space technology, York’s selection is part of a push into private-sector, commercial companies that don’t typically work with the Defense Department. York is a startup but already has satellite work elsewhere in the Pentagon, like the Army’s Harbinger imaging system.
The two beat out several other bidders that Tournear declined to name, based on how realistic their proposal is, past performance on contracts, and their readiness to deliver space hardware.
“You can utilize those commoditized components in a very rapid manner to meet the military utility and military specifications, so I’m really excited about that,” Tournear said of York.
Each contractor is sourcing their crosslinks from different providers, and must prove that their creations can integrate with the other company’s. If successful, SDA will build toward a Tranche 1 with hundreds of operational satellites for various military purposes by the end of fiscal 2024. It wants to pull in other companies as needed to avoid boxing itself into “vendor lock” and to ideally keep prices down.
“This would give you a … global network to be able to pass targeting data directly from different sensor systems, fuse them together, and send them to a weapons platform so … you can put an effect on target. That does not exist today,” Tournear said.
Right now, weapons operators rely on separate communications devices that only connect to their system instead of getting firing data from anywhere. The U.S. military also lacks a way to detect and track advanced missile threats around the globe.
“This capability will connect to systems that include fighter aircraft like F-16, F-22, and F-35, missile defense networks like PAC-3 and THAAD, weapons systems, and integrated air and missile defense networks, and will provide sensor-to-shooter targeting and situational awareness for tactical land and maritime warfighters,” Lockheed noted in a Sept. 1 release.
Tournear added SDA is working toward a capstone event with combatant commands at the beginning of fiscal 2023. That will demonstrate whether the first round of satellites can speed up the time it takes to find and strike a target.