lllustration credit: Space Development Agency

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency is designing a network of satellites in low Earth orbit and anticipates the first 30 spacecraft will be ready to launch by 2022. The agency issued a “request for information” on May 20 asking launch providers what services they can offer.

The SDA was established a year ago to speed up the use of commercially developed space technology by the Defense Department. The agency’s first constellations will be for broadband communications, and for detection and tracking of hypersonic missiles. The U.S. Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s launch enterprise will select the launch providers for SDA.

The May 20 RFI provides a rough estimate of what types of satellites the SDA will need to launch and to what orbits so launch providers can decide if they can meet those requirements. The information submitted by vendors will be used by the U.S. Space Force’s launch enterprise to prepare an official solicitation.

“The U.S. Space Force is seeking to understand potential launch solutions for this complex mission,” says the RFI.

The first SDA manifest, called Tranche 0, will consist of up to 30 large spacecraft of four different types that will be deployed 1,000 kilometers above Earth in a polar inclination. The Tranche 0 manifest will be divided into two planes of 15 spacecraft each, and each plane will have a mix of satellites of different sizes.

Vendors can propose dedicated or rideshare launch services. Depending on what options are offered, the SDA and the Space and Missile Systems Center will “determine the appropriate launch procurement approach or combination of launch solution procurements for this mission,” says the RFI.

A contract award for the Tranche 0 mission is expected in early 2021. SDA says the satellites are expected to be launched within 30 days of each other starting in September 2022.

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...