WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman announced July 5 it selected Airbus as its satellite bus supplier for the U.S. Space Development Agency’s low Earth orbit constellation. 

Northrop Grumman in February won a $692 million contract from SDA,  one of three companies selected by the Pentagon’s space agency to each produce 42 satellites projected to launch in 2024.

Airbus U.S. Space and Defense, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, will produce satellite buses for the Transport Layer Tranche 1, a mesh network of small satellites to support military communications, surveillance and tracking of enemy targets. SDA plans to launch Tranche 1 satellites in late 2024.

Northrop Grumman will use the Airbus Arrow 450, a new commercial platform that will be produced at the Airbus OneWeb Satellites factory in Merritt Island, Florida. The factory is an Airbus-OneWeb joint venture.

The Arrow 450 bus — designed to be scaled from 300 kilograms to 500 kilograms — is significantly larger than the Arrow 150 used in the OneWeb constellation. Northrop Grumman is the company’s first customer for the larger bus, Debra Facktor, head of U.S. space systems at Airbus U.S. Space and Defense, told SpaceNews.

The first Arrow 450 is scheduled to roll off the assembly line by fall 2023, Facktor said. “We’ve been working on the design for a while,” she added. “And we are also adapting the factory to accommodate a higher level of security and processing required for U.S. military satellites.”

Airbus has produced over 400 buses for OneWeb, and more are being manufactured to complete the planned 648-satellite constellation. Facktor said the company plans to leverage the OneWeb supply chain and vendors as much as possible for the larger Arrow 450.

Under the contract with Northrop Grumman, Airbus will provide buses as well as integration, testing, launch support and space vehicle commissioning services. 

“We are pleased to have Airbus U.S. as one of our key commercial suppliers for this significant national security mission,” said Blake Bullock, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of communication and strategic space systems.

For the Tranche 1 contract, Northrop Grumman will build satellites integrating the Airbus platform with government and industry payloads, including optical communications terminals made by Mynaric. The other two prime contractors for Tranche 1 are Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems. Lockheed Martin will be using Terran Orbital satellite buses. York Space manufactures its own buses in-house. 

Facktor said Airbus was aligned with other prime contractors besides Northrop Grumman as a supplier of satellite buses for the SDA constellation, but could not say which ones due to nondisclosure agreements.

Airbus in 2020 bid as a prime contractor to supply SDA missile-tracking satellites but lost out to L3Harris and SpaceX

Following that loss, Airbus decided to shift gears and position itself as a merchant supplier of commodity buses that could be used by any SDA prime contractor. 

“This time, we bid only as a sub and as a partner because we realized that what we’re really good at is leveraging the factory and the manufacturing, and then combining that with DoD requirements,” Facktor said. “What we’re doing is really sticking to a commercial way of doing business.”

The Arrow 450 bus, she said, has been offered to multiple potential buyers, she added. “We have various proposals in various stages of consideration.”

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...