The Space Development Agency's Transport Layer is a mesh network of satellites in low Earth orbit that will talk to each other and relay data to military forces on the ground. Credit: SDA

WASHINGTON — Launch services for Space Development Agency satellites will be procured under the National Security Space Launch program run by the U.S. Space Force, according to an agency announcement.

SDA is a Defense Department agency that is building a large constellation of small communications satellites in low Earth orbit known as the Transport Layer. The agency previously awarded SpaceX a $150.4 million contract to launch its first 28 satellites in 2022 and 2023. But future launches will be procured from either United Launch Alliance or SpaceX under the National Security Space Launch program (NSSL). 

The next batch of satellites to be launched by SDA will be much larger than 28. The agency will be seeking bids later this year for up to 150 satellites for the Transport Layer Tranche 1 projected to start launching in late 2024. 

ULA and SpaceX were selected last year as the NSSL Phase 2 launch providers from 2022 until 2027. Each company is assigned specific missions on a yearly basis over the five year period.

Most of the payloads launched under the NSSL program are large military and intelligence agency satellites. SDA would be the first NSSL customer building such a large constellations of small satellites in low Earth orbit. 

For the Transport Layer Tranche 1, SDA initially planned on allowing the satellite prime contractors to procure the launch services under commercial contracts. On July 26, the agency announced that launch services procurement will be handled by the Space Force’s NSSL program.

“SDA now intends to procure launch services through the USSF NSSL Phase 2 contract. Accordingly, it is anticipated that the contractor procured launch services language will be removed from the final RFP [request for proposals],” SDA said.

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...