WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency intends to select two or more companies later this year to design, build and test a mesh network of up to 20 satellites in low Earth orbit by 2022. This will be the Pentagon-based space agency’s first step toward building a much larger constellation by 2024 to provide global connectivity to the U.S. military, officials said April 2.
A final solicitation for bids for the mesh network that SDA calls “transport layer” will be issued around May 1, the agency’s director Derek Tournear said on Thursday during an online “industry day.” The event was originally scheduled to be held in Colorado Springs during the 36th Space Symposium. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the symposium has been rescheduled for later in the year. SDA hosted the meeting online and drew an audience of over 500 people.
Contracts for the design and production of a constellation of up to 20 satellites will be awarded as early as August to two or more vendors. “The number of providers will be decided upon as a result of the merit and maturity of the responses that are received,” said SDA’s draft solicitation posted on March 24. Vendors will be evaluated in part for their ability to procure or produce satellite buses that meet the military’s needs at prices comparable to what is available in the commercial sector.
Any designs or technologies proposed by vendors, if selected by SDA, would become intellectual property of the U.S. government.
SDA said the constellation is envisioned as two planes of satellites in near-polar orbits about 1,000 kilometers above Earth and an inclination range between 80 to 100 degrees. The plan is to have all satellites operate at the same altitude and inclination regardless of what vendors make them. Satellites will be connected in space via optical links. Some satellites also will have optical links to satellites that are not in transport layer and to ground terminals.
‘Tell us how much your satellites cost’
During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Tournear said SDA will not disclose how much money it plans to award in contracts for the 20-satellite constellation — known as “tranche 0” of the transport layer. The next step, tranche 1, will be a much larger constellation of hundreds of satellites to provide global coverage.
“We don’t have an estimate on initial awards,” said Tournear. “We want people to bid and tell us how much these satellites will cost.” He said SDA has $25 million in its 2020 budget for the project and requested $100 million in the 2021 budget that Congress has not passed yet.
According to SDA’s long term plans, the transport layer will be followed by three other “sensing” layers to be built over the next several years. These will be constellations of satellites equipped with different types of sensors for tracking targets on the ground, missiles in flight and objects in deep space.
Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, oversees SDA and was an early proponent of creating the agency as an alternative to the traditional military procurement organizations.
Speaking on Thursday at SDA’s online event, Griffin the transport layer has become a top priority for the Defense Department because it will help move data across all branches of the military, enabling what the Pentagon calls “multi-domain operations.”
Although SDA has been given the responsibility for major DoD space programs, the agency is not yet part of the U.S. Space Force. Griffin said SDA will move to the Space Force by October 2022.
Between now and then, said Griffin, SDA will have to demonstrate that it can do what it said it would do: build space systems faster and at less cost than traditional DoD programs.
“We have to be able to blend commercial manufacturing approaches to build the things that DoD needs,” said Griffin. “We’ll do that.”