Space Development Agency’s first satellite launch hailed as model

ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. military’s ambitious plan to deploy a mega-constellation of satellites has passed a key milestone with the launch of the Space Development Agency’s first 10 satellites.

Three days after the April 2 launch, agency director Derek Tournear said SDA had established communication with all 10 satellites. “It’s pretty amazing,” he told the Mitchell Institute Spacepower Security Forum on Wednesday.

It was the first launch of a projected mesh network of hundreds of small satellites in low Earth orbit known as the Proliferated Fighters Space Architecture. It includes a transport layer of interconnected communications satellites and a tracking layer of missile detection satellites and warning sensors.

The successful launch of the tranche 0 satellites came 27 months after SDA, an agency of the US Space Force, ordered the satellites, drawing praise from senior officials.

This delivery schedule is rarely seen in space acquisitions, Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, said at the Mitchell Institute conference.

“For those who have been in the business for a while, 27 months is extremely fast,” he said.

SDA is preparing to launch another 18 Tranche 0 satellites in June. But the real ramp-up begins next year when Tranche 1 launches are expected to kick off.

A total of 161 satellites are expected to be delivered over the next 18 months, including 126 for the transport layer and 35 for the tracking layer.

“Starting in September 2024, we expect one launch per month for next year,” Tournear said. “I’m pretty excited about it.”

The slice 1 satellites, currently produced by several bus and sensor manufacturers, will undergo design reviews later this month, Tournear said.

The Pentagon has allocated $700 million in 2023 and $500 million in 2024 to fund a total of 12 SDA launches.

Hundreds of additional satellites to come

Meanwhile, SDA is preparing to publish a solicitation for the next contracts for the Tranche 2 satellites, which would be launched from 2026. A draft solicitation was published on March 1.

This will be SDA’s largest purchase to date, with 216 satellites planned for the Tranche 2 transport layer and around 54 for the tracking layer, although Tournear said the final number of tracking satellites has yet to be announced. been determined.

What is important about slice 2 is that it will add enough nodes to the network to provide global coverage. “We’re going to build on what we’ve done to basically make the whole architecture globally persistent,” Tournear said.

When slice 1 is deployed, the DoD will be able to focus its coverage on certain regions of the world but not on the entire globe.

“With Tranche 2, we won’t need to make these trades,” Tournear said.

A model to “go fast”

In a memo issued April 5 to all acquisition personnel, Frank Calvelli, Air Force assistant secretary for space acquisition and integration, outlined the 27-month timeline achieved. by SDA.

“Three years or less from contract start to launch – a simple formula for going fast in space acquisition,” Calvelli wrote.

Echoing guidelines he issued last year, Calvelli said the Space Force should leverage commercial products, rely on smaller satellites and buy under fixed-price contracts, which it does. the SDA.

“It used to be that building large satellites with long development cycles on cost-plus contracts made sense, but those days are over,” Calvelli said.

“To address the growing threat, we are moving from the few ‘big juicy targets’ of the past to a more proliferating and resilient architecture that can be relied on in times of crisis and conflict,” he added. “Bring the contract scope to three years or less from inception to launch.”

This formula, Calvelli insisted, “can be applied to all systems and all orbits”.

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