WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency has set its sights on an ambitious launch schedule for 2024 following two successful launches this year that marked steady progress for the fledgling U.S. Space Force agency

“Starting next September, it’s an 11-launch campaign over 11 months, one launch a month,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said Dec. 7 at a National Security Space Association online forum.

SDA is developing a network of satellites known as the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture — a large constellation of lower-cost, mass-produced satellites in low Earth orbit. This is different from the traditional DoD approach of using small numbers of expensive, highly-customized satellites.

The constellation is designed to provide capabilities like advanced missile warning, tracking and targeting of hypersonic weapons, space asset defense, and battlefield awareness and targeting.

Two launches in 2023

SDA’s first 23 satellites launched in 2023 on SpaceX rockets are demonstration spacecraft known as Tranche 0. There are still four Tranche 0 missile-tracking satellites that were delayed and have not yet launched. 

Tournear said SDA’s immediate priority early next year will be to launch these four L3Harris missile-tracking satellites. They are scheduled to fly to orbit alongside other Missile Defense Agency satellites on the USSF-124 Space Force mission but no launch date has yet been announced. 

Later in 2024, SDA expects to initiate launches for the first operational satellites that will comprise Tranche 1 of the proliferated low Earth orbit architecture. 

Starting in September next year, the goal is to get 161 satellites into orbit in less than a year, Tournear said. 

These include 126 Tranche 1 Transport Layer communications satellites made by York Space Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman; and 35 missile-tracking sensor satellites made by L3Harris, Northrop Grumman and RTX. 

Tournear noted that all 126 transport satellites will have Link 16 tactical data communications terminals “that will give us full global persistence.” 

Expanding the military’s global Link 16 network to space is a critical goal for SDA, he said. “What we’re concentrating on is primarily being able to support terrestrial warfighters from space.”

Impact on industrial base

Tournear said he has been impressed seeing new space companies like York Space Systems maturing rapidly, while established defense giants like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman upping their game by partnering with commercial suppliers.

SDA selected SpaceX in 2020 to supply satellites when the company was just starting to produce spacecraft. When SDA selected York as a satellite supplier, the company was a newcomer, Tournear said. “At that time they were relatively unknown. So it was really high risk to award those contracts to them.” 

SDA also picked Lockheed Martin, which Tournear viewed as “really odd” because the agency billed itself as a “constructive disrupter” supposed to be doing things differently than the traditional defense programs.

“But I’ll tell you, it’s worked out really well for us,” he said. “I have a lot more confidence in a lot of these new space companies.”

Tournear said at one point he feared that Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, both established aerospace and defense companies, “would operate under their big classical aerospace and defense mentality on these programs. We’ve actually seen the opposite.”

To get prices down and accelerate production, these companies teamed with commercial vendors. Lockheed Martin works with Terran Orbital, which is a new space company based on a commercial model that’s trying to sell those buses as a commodity product, he said. “So they’ve really capitalized on that.”

Northrop Grumman is not building buses but buying them from Airbus’ OneWeb production line. 

“And what we’re seeing is that the bigs are not acting like they do on large cost-plus contracts,” Tournear added. “We’ve got them on fixed-price contracts, they’re relying a lot on their new space partners to be able to provide the speed and the efficiency so that they can hit our price points.”

“It turns out that there are new space companies in there, they just have a Lockheed or Northrop wrapper on top of it.”

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...