WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency is looking to work with commercial operators of imaging satellites so they can send data directly to U.S. government satellites in orbit, the agency’s director Derek Tournear said June 22.

The idea is to make it easier for Earth observation satellite operators to sell their data to the government without having to download it to ground stations, Tournear said at the Defense One Tech Summit.

Using optical inter-satellite links, companies could send data directly from their constellations to SDA’s satellites, he said. 

SDA is building a network of data-relay satellites in low Earth orbit known as the Transport Layer. It plans to have as many as 150 satellites in orbit by 2024 and hundreds more could follow. Each satellite in the network would have multiple optical communications terminals to pass data to other satellites and to military platforms like aircraft, ships and command centers on the ground. 

To detect and track missiles that could be aimed at U.S. forces, the SDA is building a network of surveillance sensor satellites known as the Tracking Layer. The agency also plans to use commercial satellite imagery to help track these targets. 

“SDA wants to create a market,” Tournear said. 

Optical inter-satellite links “open up a completely new way to move data,” he said. 

The agency is interested in working with operators of electro-optical, radar imaging or other types of observation satellites. “We would say, ‘hey, can you put an optical crosslink on your satellite so that it can talk directly to our Transport Layer so that then we can fuse the data and get it directly to the warfighter,’” Tournear said. 

This would give the industry “another channel to market,” he said. “They don’t have to download the data and put it out on the market and then sell it back to the government. They can essentially sell it to the government as they as send it to our Transport Layer.” 

Tournear said a draft request for proposals for the next batch of Transport Layer satellites will be issued in the coming weeks. A final request for proposals is expected in August. 

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 two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...