JUST IN: Space Development Agency Awards Lucrative Contracts for Satcom Network

By Meredith Roaten

Northrop Grumman illustration

The Space Development Agency selected two big name defense contractors and a third newer aerospace company for its plans to build more than a hundred satellites, officials announced Feb. 28. 

Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Colorado-based York Space Systems received awards totaling about $1.8 billion to build 126 space vehicles for the agency’s "Tranche 1" transport layer, according to a press release.

The companies were selected out of eight proposals to deliver 42 low-Earth orbit satellites each for an initial launch in September 2024, said the agency's director Derek Tournear.

Tranche 1 is the second layer in what is known as the agency's "National Defense Space Architecture" — a layered plan that includes building satellites for tracking, positioning, navigation and timing and warfighter communications, according to the Defense Department.

The transport layer will enable “initial warfighting capability” by moving high volumes of data faster while being less vulnerable to attack, according to Tournear. Tactical data links today only allow weapon platforms to communicate over a short distance, he said during a Defense Writers Group event.

Tactical data links on the new satellite network will increase the distance information can travel.

“We'll be able to take data from anywhere around the globe and pass ... [that] data directly down to targeting systems so that those can be used to calculate a fire control solution, which we could then send directly to a weapons platform over those tactical data links,” Tournear said.

The preceding layer to the Tranche 1 transport layer — which consists of about 20 data transport satellites and eight wide-field-of-view persistent infrared imaging satellites — is on track to launch in about 30 weeks, he said.

The new layer will build upon the first’s technologies to provide global communications and connectivity, Tournear said. The upcoming prototypes will have about 15 to 20 percent more mass than the first layer of satellites because of their additional capabilities. 

While the first layer of satellites built in “Tranche 0” only had the ability to talk to each other or talk to the ground, the second layer will have connectivity across satellites layers and to warfighters on the ground, he noted.

“That makes the satellites a little bigger, a little more massive, so they can have enough size, weight, power to do that mission,” he said.

The newest layer is the “backbone” for the Pentagon’s effort to connect sensors and shooters, otherwise known as joint all-domain command and control, he said. Without the upcoming network of satellites, the individual services will be stuck with their own individual efforts.
While all the contractors are delivering the same number of satellites, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed’s award values are nearly twice the size of York Space’s roughly $382 million award.

Tournear declined to disclose why Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin received nearly $700 million each, but explained that reasonable cost is one of the most important factors in the space agency’s evaluation after speed.

“Each one was given a set of requirements and they bid to that capability, and realistically, York is just able to deliver at a lower price point than what Lockheed, Northrop bid,” he said.

Topics: Space

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