WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency confirmed on Jan. 8 that it awarded Rocket Lab a $515 million contract to build and operate 18 spacecraft that will be part of a low Earth orbit network of military satellites. 

SpaceNews first reported on this contract award on Dec. 23 after the agreement was disclosed in a regulatory filing. 

Rocket Lab becomes the third supplier of SDA’s Transport Layer Tranche 2 Beta satellites — projected to launch in mid-2027 — that will carry radios using the UHF (Ultra High Frequency) and S-band frequencies that military and intelligence units rely upon for voice and low-speed data transmissions.

SDA, an organization under the U.S. Space Force, is building a mesh network of military satellites known as the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. The Transport Layer will be made up of communications satellites to enable beyond line-of-sight connectivity for military forces on the ground. 

“We welcome Rocket Lab as the newest member of Team SDA and our third performer on the T2TL- Beta program,” Derek Tournear, SDA director, said Jan. 8. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were selected last year to produce 72 Beta satellites. 

Tournear since taking over as head of SDA has adopted unconventional procurement methods to acquire satellites and build a space network, emphasizing the use of commercially produced spacecraft rather than bespoke designs.

Rocket Lab USA, based in Long Beach, California, specializes in small-satellite launch services with its Electron rockets that operate from spaceports in New Zealand and Virginia. It is developing a larger rocket, called Neutron, projected to debut in 2025.

The company also has a burgeoning Space Systems business that manufactures components and spacecraft for government and commercial customers. The contract with SDA would be the largest to date for Rocket Lab’s satellite operations. 

Buses similar to those developed for Globalstar

The satellite buses for SDA will be a derivative of those Rocket Lab is developing for the communications company Globalstar. 

Rocket Lab will act as a prime contractor for SDA,  leading the design, development, production, test, and operations of the satellites, including procurement and integration of the payload subsystems. The contract has a base value of $489 million plus $26 million in incentives and options.

“This contract marks the beginning of Rocket Lab’s new era as a leading satellite prime,” Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO Peter Beck said Jan. 8. 

All 18 satellites will integrate subsystems and components built in-house by Rocket Lab, including solar panels, structures, star trackers, reaction wheels, radio, flight software, avionics and launch dispenser. During a call with analysts, Beck said he could not disclose the names of the payload suppliers.

The satellites will be built at Rocket Lab’s spacecraft development and manufacturing complex in Long Beach. The facility includes a 12,000 square-foot cleanroom and 40,000 square feet of production and test facilities.

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...