Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear speaks Aug. 4, 2020, at the virtual 34th Annual Small Satellite Conference. Credit: Small Satellite Conference

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s new space agency is working to develop a network of satellites in low Earth orbit to serve as the eyes and ears of military forces in the field. While typically it would take the Defense Department a decade to field such systems, the Space Development Agency plans to have satellites in orbit within two years.

Derek Tournear, director of the SDA, said the agency selected as its motto “semper citius” — Latin for “always faster” — to emphasize the idea that putting good-enough capabilities in the hands of troops soon is preferable to delivering the perfect solution too late.

Speaking Aug. 4 at the 34th Annual Small Satellite Conference, a virtual event underway this week, Tournear said the SDA over the next several years will buy and deploy hundreds of satellites. But he prefers the conversation to be about the jobs those satellites will do rather than the technology itself.

“We are focused on the warfighter and providing capabilities,” Tournear said. “We want to talk a lot about satellites but, realistically, we’re trying to work backwards and say, ‘what does that warfighter need in space to be able to accomplish the mission?’”

The first satellites that SDA plans to start deploying in 2022 will be a mix of surveillance sensors to help the military find targets on the ground and heat-tracking sensors to locate missiles in flight that might be aimed at U.S. or allied forces.

Tournear said the SDA wants to avoid the pitfalls that have bedeviled many Pentagon acquisition programs, which tend to run over budget and behind schedule.

The agency has issued multiple solicitations over the past several months for space architecture concepts, satellite integration and space technology demonstrations. SDA is trying to attract innovative companies, said Tournear. He said the agency is willing to accept a “higher level of risk” in order to field capabilities more quickly.

Tournear said the SDA wants to create a stable market that will incentivize companies to invest private research and development dollars “knowing that every two years they can bid” for new contracts.

That means the SDA will avoid “vendor lock,” said Tournear. “We want as wide a variety of suppliers as possible.”

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...