York Space Systems, a U.S.-based satellite maker founded in 2012, is one of a wave of NewSpace firms to have recently bought another company. Credit: York Space

WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency awarded York Space Systems a contract worth up to $200 million to build and operate 12 satellites with experimental military communications payloads.

The contract was awarded on Sept. 30 and announced Oct. 6.

SDA, an agency within the U.S. Space Force, is building the Defense Department’s first internet-in-space constellation in low Earth orbit. 

The 12 satellites to be produced by York will be part of the Tranche 1 Demonstration and Experimentation System, known as T1DES. These 12 satellites will have military Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) and S-band communications payloads that currently provide mobile wireless services from geostationary satellites. SDA wants to see whether these payloads can perform the same service from low Earth orbit.

SDA Director Derek Tournear during a call with reporters Oct. 6 said moving these communications payloads to much lower orbits poses significant technical challenges and that is why the agency is running this experiment with 12 satellites. 

“We need to show that the technology that now operates in geosynchronous orbit can be applied to LEO where you have Doppler shift differences and things like that,” he said.

York will be responsible for the procurement and integration of the communications payloads, and will need to provide significant on-board processing capacity, “which is where the real technical challenge lies,” Tournear said. The T1DES experiment is possible, he said, “because of what commercial industry has pushed in the ability to do supercomputing in low Earth orbit.”

SDA in February ordered 126 satellites for its Tranche 1 Transport Layer mesh network projected to start launching in 2024. These satellites will have optical laser terminals, Link 16 tactical links, and Ka-band radio payloads to move data in space and down to the ground. 

York Space Systems is producing 42 of the Tranche 1 Transport Layer satellites under a $382 million contract. The others will be supplied by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. York Space and Lockheed Martin also won contracts in August 2020 to each supply 10 satellites for the Transport Layer Tranche 0.

Tournear said T1DES was a “full and open competition and we determined that York provided the best value to the government to deliver on-schedule, at an affordable cost, and meet our demonstration requirements.”

He said York’s bid for the 12 satellites was “affordable” but he could not discuss the pricing offered by five other bidders that competed for the contract. 

In the Transport Layer Tranche 1 bid, York’s prices were dramatically lower than those of its competitors, which is attributed to York’s ability to manufacture satellites in-house whereas Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are buying satellite buses from partner companies and integrating them. 

Although companies like York Space, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and L3Harris have been repeat winners of SDA contracts, Tournear has insisted that the agency does not plan to keep buying satellites from the same vendors indefinitely, and intends to create a competitive environment where companies every two years will have opportunities to win contracts.

“We remain committed to provide regular opportunities through our spiral development model to promote a marketplace of industry partners,” Tournear said.

York’s streak of SDA contract wins has helped the company attract investors. The private equity firm AE Industrial Partners on Tuesday announced plans to acquire a majority stake in York Space Systems.

The 12 T1DES satellites are projected to launch starting fiscal year 2025 in four separate missions. Each launch will deploy 10 satellites: three T1DES and seven Tracking Layer Tranche 1 satellites. The 28-satellite Tracking Layer is a planned network of space sensors designed to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles. 

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...