Atlas Space Operations operates a cloud-based ground network for satellite downlink as well as telemetry, tracking and control. This image shows the Atlas Freedom Ground Network's operational and planned sites. Credit: Atlas

COLORADO SPRINGS – The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in partnership with the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit awarded Atlas Space Operations a contract to prototype an electronically steered antenna array to support Air Force multi-band, multi-mission requirements, Sean McDaniel, Atlas chief executive, told SpaceNews.

McDaniel declined to reveal the value of the award pending a Defense Department announcement but called the 12-month prototyping contract “a stepping stone to bringing an advanced multi-satellite capable antenna system to market both for larger-scale government adoption as well as commercial adoption.”

Atlas began operating Freedom, a cloud-based ground station network, in January 2016. The company plans to operate 31 ground sites by the end of 2020 “to meet the demands of our current customer base and the coming expansion into low Earth orbit constellation management,” McDaniel said April 9 at the 35th Space Symposium.

SMC’s Range and Network Division solicited information on multi-band, multi-mission antennas citing the “need to increase capacity, flexibility, interoperability, automation and resiliency of space operations and spacelift,” according to a 2017 post in FedBizOpps. “There is an increasing number of satellites and launches projected in the foreseeable future, and with that comes an increased demand on the Air Force Satellite Control Network and the Launch and Test Range System. A multi-band, multi-mission system is one conceptual solution to the growing number of U.S. government satellites and may augment or replace the current Air Force Space Control Network and Launch and Test Range System infrastructure by providing the ability to perform key Telemetry, Tracking and Control capabilities and radar functions.”

Atlas’ Freedom network began supporting FalconSat-6, the U.S. Air Force Academy’s 169-kilogram satellite packed with research experiments, in December. FalconSat-6 was Atlas’ first Defense Department customer.

The latest Air Force contract is important to Atlas because it “will increase our business opportunities within the U.S. government on the whole,” potentially leading to contracts with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and “perhaps intelligence community when the time comes because of the scalable nature of the antenna array,” McDaniel said. “We can adapt the technology to meet the demands of a given customer within the U.S. government or commercial industry.”

While expanding its government business, Atlas also is establishing relationships with commercial partners. In March, Atlas signed a memorandum of understanding with satellite network operator Speedcast. The agreement covers the integration of teleports for low Earth orbit satellites at Speedcast facilities worldwide, McDaniel said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...