Space Development Agency to start building its first constellation of surveillance satellites
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency is soliciting pitches for technologies that will be used to build a network of satellites in low Earth orbit that would help the military find targets on the ground and track enemy missiles in flight.
By late 2022, the agency wants to have several dozen satellites in orbit “to show that we can operate a proliferated constellation and that the constellation can talk to weapon systems,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said Jan. 21 at a Pentagon news conference.
The agency issued a broad area announcement (BAA) on Jan. 21 titled “National Defense Space Architecture Systems, Technologies and Emerging Capabilities.” A BAA is an open call for ideas.
Tournear was named director of the SDA in October. The agency was established in March and sits under the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin. Congress in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act directed that the SDA be moved to the U.S. Space Force no later than 2022.
Congress in fiscal year 2020 appropriated $30.5 million for SDA operations and maintenance, $20 million for research and development, and $75 million for technology prototyping.
With funding in hand, the SDA wants to start building its first constellation — called a transport layer — that will serve two primary goals: locate targets on the ground and at sea, and track advanced missiles such as hypersonic glide vehicles. The constellation will have a mix of sensing and communications satellites so data collected by the sensors can be passed to the communications satellites, sent down to commanders on the ground or used to directly tip and cue a missile interceptor.
The plan is to expand the constellation over time. By 2024 it would have hundreds of satellites to provide regional coverage. By 2026, there would be enough satellites for global coverage.
The SDA intends to ultimately deploy multiple constellations that collectively could amount to thousands of satellites.
In addition to the transport layer there will be a battle management layer, a tracking layer, a custody layer, a navigation layer, a deterrence layer and a support layer. Tournear said the SDA will deploy satellites faster than traditional military programs.
The agency last year issued a request for industry ideas that generated 150 responses, said Tournear. Based on the information received, the SDA decided that its constellations will operate in LEO but at higher altitudes, from 800 kilometers to 1,200 kilometers above Earth. The agency believes that there is a mature enough industrial base to support building the initial transport layer over the next two years and then start delivering one satellite a week to support the other layers. Satellites will be small to medium, in the several-hundred-kilogram category. They would have an operational life of about five years and cost around $10 million each.
A solicitation specifically for the transport layer will come out this spring and contracts could be awarded as early as this summer, said Tournear.
The tracking and communications satellites in the transport layer will have optical links so they can talk to each other. In a recent request for information SDA asked for pitches on optical inter-satellite link standards to inform the upcoming solicitation.
The communications satellites will have tactical data links such as Link 16. The tracking satellites will have infrared sensors and will share data with the transport satellites.
Tournear noted that SDA does not plan to develop a traditional communications satellite network but one designed specifically to share tactical data over a secure communications protocol.