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Space Development Agency celebrates launch of its first satellites

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department’s space agency on June 30 hailed the deployment of its first missions which flew to orbit on a SpaceX rideshare carrying 88 small satellites.

“Today’s missions will provide real-world data that we can use to verify our engineering assumptions and space-qualify a significant emerging technology,” Derek Tournear, director of the Space Development Agency said in a statement after SpaceX confirmed the agency’s payloads successfully separated.

SDA’s missions on Transporter 2, estimated to cost $21 million, include two pairs of satellites to demonstrate the performance of optical communications terminals in low Earth orbit, and one to demonstrate on-orbit data processing. 

These are the agency’s first in-space experiments since it was established in 2019. SDA plans to deploy a network of satellites in low Earth orbit for military communications and for missile defense. The first batch of satellites is scheduled to launch in late 2022.

Optical communications between satellites, from satellites to aircraft in flight and to the ground is a key technology SDA wants to use in its constellations. “SDA is relying on optical communications terminals to get massive amounts of data off of sensors and into warfighters’ hands faster than has ever been possible,” said Tournear.

One of the missions, called Mandrake 2, was supposed to launch in January on the Transporter 1 rideshare but the satellites were damaged during processing. This is a joint SDA, DARPA and Air Force Research Laboratory mission to evaluate the pointing, acquisition and tracking algorithms that allow optical terminals to establish and maintain high-speed communication links. 

Mandrake 2 will help characterize data transfer rates and optical link performance between space vehicles in LEO and from space to ground. After separation from the launch vehicle, the pair of Mandrake 2 satellites will gradually drift apart on orbit, allowing for tests at ranges up to 2,400 kilometers.

The other optical communications demonstration — called  Laser Interconnect Networking Communications System (LINCS) — uses two satellites equipped with optical terminals. The satellites and terminals were supplied by General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems. This mission will test in-space communication and also attempt to demonstrate space-to-air optical links between a satellite and a specially developed optical communications pod on an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. 

“Optical links between space, air, and ground assets offer significantly higher data rates and lower latency when compared to conventional radio frequency links,” Tournear said. Another benefit of optical links is that they are more difficult to detect and disrupt than traditional communication links.

SDA’s fifth payload on Transporter 2 is the Prototype On-orbit Experimental Testbed (POET), which rode on a commercial satellite built by Loft Orbital called YAM-3, short for “Yet Another Mission.”

The agency said POET will demonstrate the integration of data from multiple sources on a computer aboard the satellite, known as an “edge processor.” The payload’s software suite was developed by Scientific Systems Company Inc.


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Space Development Agency to launch five satellites aboard SpaceX rideshare

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Development Agency has five satellites riding on SpaceX’s Transporter-2 rideshare mission scheduled to launch June 25.

“There’s nothing in the space business that gets your blood pumping like the idea of a launch, especially if you’ve got multiple satellites,” a senior Space Development Agency (SDA) official told reporters June 22. “We’re really excited about what’s going to happen.”

Transporter-2 is expected to carry as many as 88 small satellites from commercial and government customers to a sun synchronous polar orbit. SDA’s five payloads include two pairs of satellites to demonstrate laser communications links, and one to demonstrate how data can be processed and analyzed autonomously aboard a satellite. 

SDA’s experiments were done in collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory. 

These are SDA’s first in-space experiments since the agency was established in 2019. SDA is developing a network of satellites in low Earth orbit for military communications and for missile defense. The first batch of satellites is scheduled to launch in late 2022. 

Laser comms demonstration

SDA is launching a demonstration known as Mandrake 2 — a pair of small spacecraft equipped with optical crosslinks that was originally scheduled to launch in January on SpaceX’s Transporter-1. The satellites were accidentally damaged during payload processing and didn’t make the launch. 

The satellites were made by Astro Digital with optical links from SA Photonics. Mandrake 2 started under DARPA’s Blackjack, a program that began in 2018 to demonstrate the utility of low-cost small satellites in low Earth orbit for military operations.

Also on Transporter-2 are a pair of cubesats built by General Atomics for SDA. They will be used to demonstrate optical communications between satellites, and from satellites to a military drone aircraft. 

SDA will test optical crosslinks and communication between satellites and a pilotless MQ-9 Reaper drone made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

Onboard data processing

SDA’s fifth payload is riding on a commercial satellite built by Loft Orbital called YAM-3, short for “Yet Another Mission.”

Loft Orbital, a San Francisco-based startup, buys satellite buses and leases space onboard the buses to customers who don’t want to fly their own satellites. The company’s customer for the SDA payload is Scientific Systems Company Inc., which won a DARPA contract to fly a demonstration for the Blackjack program’s Pit Boss mission system. SDA recently took over the experiment and named it POET, short for prototype on orbit experimental testbed.

The goal is to demonstrate data processing onboard a satellite in space and the ability of the satellite’s computer to analyze data from multiple sources, analyze it and send it down to users on the ground. 

The SDA official described POET as an “offshoot of the Blackjack Pit Boss effort.” He said the experiment will seek to “load data and algorithms, and we’re going to test out data fusion in orbit.”

Military users need data fast, he said, “so we have to move more and more of the processing into orbit to actually accomplish that.”


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Exolaunch arranges rides for Loft Orbital satellites

SAN FRANCISCO – German launch services provider Exolaunch announced an agreement to launch two Loft Orbital microsatellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare missions.

Under the contract, Exolaunch will handle mission management, deployment and integration services for Loft Orbital, a San Francisco startup planning to establish a constellation of standard microsatellites to fly payloads, sensors and experiments for customers.

Exolaunch announced plans in April to arrange rides for multiple small satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare missions. Loft Orbital is the first customer announced.

Exolaunch is preparing to launch Loft Orbital’s YAM-3 satellite, built by LeoStella, a Seattle-based joint venture of Thales Alenia Space and Spaceflight Industries, on a Falcon 9 flight scheduled for December 2020. YAM-3 includes an internet-of-things payload, an onboard autonomy demonstration, a position and queuing demonstration and blockchain applications.

YAM-3 will deploy from the Falcon 9 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter port with CarboNIX, Exolaunch’s microsatellite separation system.

Exolaunch plans to send another Loft Orbital satellite to space on a 2021 SpaceX flight.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with Exolaunch for YAM-3’s launch,” Pierre-Damien Vaujour, Loft Orbital co-CEO, said in a statement. “We’re looking forward to a long-term partnership with their team.”

Exolaunch Commercial Director Jeanne Medvedeva said in a statement, “Loft Orbital’s unique service of aggregating multiple payloads on their satellites addresses the industry’s acute demand for reduced complexity and costs.”

Loft Orbital planned to launch its first satellite, YAM-2, on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in mid-2020 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created launch delays.

“The overall uncertainty, travel restrictions and shipment delays due to the pandemic mainly affected the rideshare launches scheduled for mid-year,” Medvedeva told SpaceNews. “Thankfully, the production of our separation systems within Germany wasn’t affected. But it was challenging to guarantee timely shipments due to the lack of flights.”

In cases where Exolaunch employees haven’t been able to integrate vehicles at launch sites due to the pandemic, the company has instructed customers to perform the integration virtually, Medvedeva said. “We hope that the situation will improve in the upcoming months to enable smooth preparations for the Falcon 9 launch at the end of the year,” she added.

Blue Canyon Technologies built Loft Orbital’s YAM-2 satellite.

“Remaining satellite bus, payload and launch vehicle agnostic is a core part of Loft Orbital’s value proposition,” Vaujour said.