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Defense Innovation Unit seeks commercial options to deploy satellites in deep space

DoD is looking for ‘responsive access’ to cislunar space
BOSTON -- A proposed $250 million cut to the Pentagon's $549 million budget request for the Airborne Laser next year would delay a crucial demonstration of the futuristic system by about three years, according to a U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) official.

WASHINGTON — The Defense Innovation Unit is seeking proposals for commercial services to deploy and operate payloads in outer space beyond Earth orbit, an area known as cislunar space.

DIU, a Defense Department agency created to bring commercially developed technology into military programs, is looking for “responsive access” to the vast region of space that begins at geosynchronous Earth orbit and extends out to the Earth-moon Lagrange point on the far side of the moon.

Outer space beyond GEO will “experience a rapid influx of activity from national, international and commercial sources in this decade,” said DIU in a Dec. 7 solicitation. “As the U.S. prepares to return to the moon, the need for responsive access to this region is absolutely necessary.”

The Department of Defense is interested in “commercial solutions for implementing responsive access to xGEO and demonstrating timely and precise delivery of a space vehicle to a predetermined orbit in xGEO.”

DIU’s new project on cislunar space comes on the heels of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s $72 million contract award for an experimental spacecraft to monitor the xGEO region. 

U.S. military leaders have warned that growing activity in cislunar space could turn this region into a contested domain as countries seek access to lunar resources and stake out areas of jurisdiction. Current sensors used by the military for space domain awareness were designed to track satellites in Earth orbits, at distances of 36,000 kilometers or closer, and not for cislunar space which extends out 385,000 kilometers and has different orbital trajectories. 

DIU said companies bidding for this project can expect many technical challenges. “The communications infrastructure is sparse, the radiation environment is harsh, and gravity from the moon and sun have greater effects on station keeping and maneuvering,” said the solicitation. 

Proposals are due Dec. 21.

Vendors are asked to propose satellite concepts that can operate a suite of payloads or instruments in one or more of the five Earth-moon Lagrange points and lunar orbits. DIU wants commercial technologies that can be prototyped within 12 to 18 months from contract award.

“Delivery methods may include a combination of terrestrial-based launch and multi-orbit logistics,” said DIU. 

Satellites can be anywhere from cubesats to ESPA-class small satellites, and must have at least one or more payloads for visible and infrared imaging, onboard image processing, high impulse propulsion, autonomy, space-radiation monitoring and communications.

DoD also wants to explore the integration of commercial and government-owned payloads on the same spacecraft.

After proposals are received, DIU might recommend that companies offering complementary technologies work together, although vendors can propose their own teaming arrangements.

In about three months, DIU plans to select companies that will receive Other Transaction Agreement (OTA) contracts to prototype systems. The agency has the option to award follow-on production contracts “without the use of competitive procedures.”

OTA contracts are used by the federal government mostly for research and development projects. These contracts are different from traditional procurement deals in that they are not subject to many of the regulations and requirements that apply to traditional contracts. OTAs frequently are used for projects that require collaboration between the government and non-traditional defense contractors.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly...