The space business is booming but global supply chain disruptions that have put a damper on consumer electronics and automobile sales are starting to be felt by satellite manufacturers/ Credit: Tom Kimmell Photography

COLORADO SPRINGS — Defense Department satellite programs are feeling the effects of the widespread microchip shortage that has stymied carmakers and consumer electronic manufacturers.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is hoping to launch as many as 12 satellites into low Earth orbit next year for the Blackjack program, but supply shortages are creating schedule risk for the military space network demonstration. 

Blackjack program manager Stephen Forbes told SpaceNews that DARPA is still planning to start launching satellites in summer 2022 but supply shortages hampering manufacturers could lead to delays. DARPA has ordered 10 satellite buses from Blue Canyon Technologies, two from Telesat, and is buying payloads from several suppliers. 

“Our performers are doing a really good job but it’s taking a lot more effort than we ever expected to hunt down capacitors and other stuff like that,” Forbes said by phone from Washington. If components are not available, “we will be at the mercy of the supply chain,” he said. 

Forbes said the supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are especially vexing for programs like Blackjack that buy satellites in small numbers. 

“We’re actively working all of our parts issues and trying to make sure that we can find the parts that we need, especially when we’re buying onesies and twosies,” he said. “We’re near the bottom of the priority queue.”

Forbes said no Blackjack vendors are immune from the supply chain disruption.

“Every single performer has components that are currently late because of the supply chain,” Forbes added. “We’re just behind the crush of everybody trying to build consumer electronics while factories are being shut down.”

Most of the components used in government satellites are commodities that are used by a variety of global manufacturers, Forbes noted. “There’s nothing exquisite or exotic about them,” he said. “We are really trying to leverage commercial components on the electronics side, which means we’re competing for the same parts that Ford and GM.”

Despite these challenges, “I think it’s fair to categorize the current supply chain as a schedule risk that the performers are actively managing on a daily basis.”

The Space Development Agency is another Pentagon smallsat buyer watching the supply situation. SDA is building a mesh communications network in low Earth orbit and is about to issue a solicitation for 144 smallsats it aims to launch in 2024. The order is likely to be split among three manufacturers.

“Yes, we do see supply chain difficulties from a lot of our vendors,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said Aug. 24 at the 36th Space Symposium. These include “microelectronics difficulties that are causing people to actually make some modifications on their designs to use alternate vendors.”

So far none of these issues have affected SDA’s schedule for its envisioned Transport Layery constellation “primarily because the vendors were able to work other customers and get the microelectronics ahead of schedule for our program, and pay back other programs,” said Tournear. “And some vendors actually made some design changes to do that.”

How vendors manage the supply chain is one of the evaluation criteria used by SDA to select suppliers, he said. “We want vendors to not only have a good solid design, but have a good solid manufacturing plan and show us their long-lead items and how they’re going to mitigate any shortages.”

The chip shortage is currently affecting one of the industry’s largest smallsat manufacturers, SpaceX, which has built and launched more than 1,600 Starlink satellites to date. “That’s what’s delayed the new user terminals,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a LEO constellation panel discussion Aug. 24 at Space Symposium. 

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...