WASHINGTON — The Defense Department’s space agency on Aug. 30 released a request for proposals from satellite manufacturers that would compete for contracts to build as many as 144 satellites.

The satellites will make up the Space Development Agency’s Transport Layer Tranche 1 — a mesh network of communications satellites in low Earth orbit projected to start launching in late 2024. 

According to the request for proposals (RFP), the agency intends to buy 126 baseline satellites and 18 additional ones for hosting other payloads. They will be divided into six orbital planes, to be awarded to multiple vendors.

Companies are asked to bid for two of the orbital planes, with the associated ground equipment. All satellites have to be interoperable and able to share data via optical inter-satellite links, regardless of who manufactures them. 

Proposals are due in October and SDA expects to award contracts in January.

SDA said the success of its plan to field a proliferated architecture of satellites for communications, missile tracking and targeting is “predicated on the availability of a ubiquitous data and communications Transport Layer provided by a proliferated constellation of relatively small, mass-producible space vehicles in low Earth orbit.”

Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems were selected last year to provide 10 satellites each for SDA’s Transport Layer Tranche 0. L3Harris and SpaceX won contracts to provide four satellites each for SDA’s Tracking Layer intended for missile detection and tracking.

All four winners of Tranche 0 are likely to compete again for Tranche 1 contracts, although none have yet confirmed. Other satellite manufacturers reportedly looking to win a share of Tranche 1 include Airbus, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. 

At a virtual industry day last week, SDA officials said the selection of providers has to comply with Buy American Act requirements. To be considered as being produced in the U.S., goods must be manufactured in the U.S. and at least 50% of the cost of their components must come from the U.S.

However, “qualifying countries” with reciprocal defense memoranda of understanding or international agreements with the U.S. — in which both countries agreed to remove Barriers to purchases of supplies produced in the other country — are treated like domestic suppliers. 

There are 27 countries in this category, including 22 European nations, Australia, Canada, Egypt, Israel and Japan. 

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...