SAN FRANCISCO — Ball Aerospace announced plans April 11 to work with Loft Federal and Microsoft’s Azure Orbital on the Space Development Agency’s National Defense Space Architecture Experimental Testbed program, known as NExT.

After announcing the $176 million contract in October to rapidly supply, operate and secure launch services for SDA’s NExT program, Ball Aerospace began identifying partners.

Loft Federal will supply the Longbow satellite bus based on the design of the OneWeb satellite. Loft Federal also will provide satellite operations software, perform spacecraft integration and testing, procure commercial launch services, oversee the launch campaign and operate the satellites in orbit.

“The Loft strategy and inventory allow us to meet a rapid timeline,” said John Eterno, Loft Federal general manager. 

Once the satellites launch, Microsoft will supply the Azure Government cloud and ground station infrastructure.

“We’ll be bringing the ground station together with our government clouds to provide secure capabilities,” said Stephen Kitay, Azure Space senior director.

Ball Aerospace will integrate NExT satellites with government-provided payloads in its secure facilities in Broomfield, Colorado.

“We have classified facilities,” said Mike Gazarik, Ball Aerospace vice president of engineering. “We can do integration and test at our facility.”

Fast Pace

The first NExT launch is scheduled for 2024. If all goes as planned, additional launches will be completed by the middle of 2025.

The overarching challenge is “getting all of these pieces merged quickly and efficiently on the schedule that SDA is pushing,” Eterno said. “Loft is bringing products that work. Microsoft has Azure Orbital. We’re combining it all together with Ball’s support.”

Ball Aerospace, Loft and Microsoft demonstrated their ability to work together through an edge-processing payload launched in January on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare flight.

The Ball payload included a prototype version of Azure Orbital Space SDK platform, an application toolkit designed to make it easy for people to create and deploy applications on-orbit. The payload was integrated onto Loft’s modular payload interface and launched aboard Loft’s YAM-5 mission. Loft operates the payload through Cockpit, the company’s satellite operations platform.

“We’ve worked with both Loft and Microsoft to demonstrate on-orbit data processing, and to rapidly infuse technology and demonstrate it on orbit,” Gazarik said. “Those are good partners for us. We continue that journey with them on SDA NExT.”

For Loft Federal, which was formed earlier this year to focus on the U.S. national security market, the SDA NExT contract is “immensely important,” Eterno said. “Our focus right now is executing on NExT, establishing ourselves in the government space and continuing to build the team out in Colorado.”

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...