WASHINGTON — A communications satellite designed by Lockheed Martin for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency passed a critical design review, the company announced Aug. 7.

Lockheed Martin will build 42 satellites for SDA’s Tranche 1 Transport Layer, a mesh network in low Earth orbit that will support U.S. military operations. 

The company in February 2022 won a $700 million contract to produce the satellites using buses made by Terran Orbital. The Tranche 1 Transport Layer of 126 satellites also will include spacecraft manufactured by Northrop Grumman and York Space Systems. 

The Transport Layer is the first major DoD program to use smaller, lower-cost satellites for global military communications and data relay. 

Kevin Huttenhoff, Lockheed Martin’s senior manager for space data transport, said the company worked with SDA to “thoroughly validate the Tranche 1 satellite and ground designs, to include supplier designs.”

For the design review, Lockheed Martin 3D-printed a full-size replica of the Tranche 1 satellite.

The critical design review also included an optical communications terminal interoperability test. All SDA satellites have optical terminals for in-space communications. 

SDA plans to start launching the Tranche 1 Transport Layer in late 2024. 

Lockheed Martin will assemble and test the satellites at a new facility designed for small-satellite production. 

Tranche 0 launch targeted for late August

Under a separate $187.5 million contract SDA awarded in August 2020, Lockheed Martin built 10 satellites for the Tranche 0 Transport Layer.

These 10 satellites — along with one from York Space and two missile-tracking satellites made by SpaceX — were scheduled to launch in June but are now projected to launch in late August, an SDA official told SpaceNews.

The 13 satellites will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. 

The SDA official said the launch was delayed to work out encryption security issues. “We had to work back and forth with the National Security Agency,” the official said. The NSA certifies the encryption systems used in DoD platforms. “We feel confident we’ve been able to resolve what is necessary and we’re progressing toward launch at the end of the month,” the official said.

Huttenhoff said Lockheed Martin’s 10 satellites are “all wrapped up, ready to ship.”

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...