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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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SpaceX and L3Harris win – again- Space Development Agency contracts to build missile-warning satellites

WASHINGTON — Following a series of contract protests, the Space Development Agency again awarded SpaceX a $149 million contract and L3Harris a $193.5 million contract to each build four satellites to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles

The contracts to both companies were originally awarded Oct. 5 but work had to be stopped after competitors Airbus and Raytheon filed protests with the Government Accountability Office challenging the awards. To resolve the protests, the Space Development Agency agreed to re-evaluate contractor bids. GAO dismissed Airbus’ protest Nov. 30. Raytheon filed two additional protests and the last one was dismissed on Dec. 22.

Space Development Agency spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said in a statement Jan. 7 that work on the eight satellites — known as Tracking Layer Tranche 0 — recommenced Dec. 28 when a temporary stop-work order was lifted. “SDA implemented a corrective action plan for the Tracking Layer Tranche 0 competition after initial awards received protests,” she said. “The reevaluation confirmed the original selection decision announced in October and concluded that the SpaceX and L3Harris Technologies’ proposals offered the best value to the government.”

Elzea said the agency is “confident that the reevaluation resulted in a fair outcome for all involved parties.”

The Space Development Agency is planning to launch Tranche 0 satellites in late 2022.

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SpaceX wins $150 million contract to launch Space Development Agency satellites

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has been awarded a $150.4 million contract to launch as many as 28 satellites for the Pentagon’s space agency, the Defense Department announced Dec. 31. 

The contract is to launch a mix of small and medium spacecraft of different sizes that the Space Development Agency is acquiring from multiple vendors. That includes 20 data-relay satellites known as the Transport Layer and the other eight are missile-warning satellites known as the Tracking Layer.

SpaceX will launch these satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The Space Development Agency requested bids on Oct. 6 and responses were due Nov. 9. The agency estimates the satellites will be ready to launch in late 2022. 

The manifest will be divided into two planes of 14 spacecraft each in two circular near-polar orbits at an altitude of 950 kilometers, according to the request for proposals. 

The agency said it would select a provider that offered the “best value” based on several criteria such as price, schedule and past performance.

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SpaceX teams with Microsoft for Space Development Agency contract

WASHINGTON — SpaceX earlier this month won a $149 million contract from the Defense Department’s Space Development Agency to build four satellites to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief of operating officer, revealed in a pre-recorded interview released Oct. 20 that Microsoft is a subcontractor working on the SDA program with SpaceX. 

Shotwell in the video spoke with Tom Keane, corporate vice president of Microsoft Azure Global, about a new agreement to use SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband to connect Azure cloud computing data centers deployed around the world.  

Keane also asked Shotwell to discuss the companies’ other partnership for the SDA contract.

“We were pleased that Microsoft was on our team,” said Shotwell. “We will be delivering to the government a number of satellites that host a capability to protect against ballistic weapons,” she added. “Microsoft will be doing quite a bit of work as a subcontractor which I think was kind of a funny twist to the relationship here.”

The SDA satellites, to be delivered by September 2022, will have a “wide field of view” overhead persistent infrared sensor capable of detecting and tracking advanced missile threats from low Earth orbit. The spacecraft will have optical crosslinks to pass data to relay satellites. 

Shotwell did not discuss what specific role Microsoft will play in the SDA program. SpaceX is vertically integrated and does not work with many subcontractors. According to an industry source, SpaceX was interested in Microsoft Azure’s orbital emulator — a digital environment that allows the user to visualize an entire satellite architecture, test satellite designs and artificial intelligence algorithms. 

The orbital emulator “conducts massive satellite constellation simulations with software and hardware in the loop,” according to a Microsoft blog post. “This allows satellite developers to evaluate and train AI algorithms and satellite networking before ever launching a single satellite.”

The SDA satellites are being designed to process data on board and re-task themselves autonomously. The Azure emulator tool allows the user to see what the satellite sees, which helps model scenarios and simulate the architecture.

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SpaceX, L3Harris win Space Development Agency contracts to build missile-warning satellites

WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency awarded SpaceX a $149 million contract and L3Harris a $193.5 million contract to each build four satellites to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles.

The contracts announced Oct. 5 are for the first eight satellites of a potentially much larger Space Development Agency constellation of sensor satellites known as Tracking Layer Tranche 0. This is SpaceX’s first military contract to produce satellites. 

Both companies have to each deliver four satellites by September 2022, Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear told SpaceNews.

Each satellite will have a “wide field of view” overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) sensor capable of detecting and tracking advanced missile threats from low Earth orbit. Each satellite also will have an optical crosslink so it can pass data to relay satellites. 

Tournear said the winners were selected based on technical merit and ability to deliver satellites quickly.

SpaceX proposed a new satellite design that is based on the Starlink bus that SpaceX designed for its internet megaconstellation. Tournear said SpaceX is acquiring the OPIR sensor from another supplier but could not disclose the name. SpaceX has not yet revealed its subcontractors for this program.

L3Harris bid a complete satellite with the bus and payload produced in-house. 

The optical crosslinks in the Tracking Layer must be compatible with the optical links used in the Transport Layer satellites that Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems are building for the Space Development Agency.

The Transport Layer is the backbone that moves data collected by the sensors to anywhere in the world where the U.S. military needs it. 

Tournear said SpaceX “came in with an extremely credible proposal” that leverages its Starlink assembly line. 

“The selection is on technical merit but the schedule takes top priority,” he said. “The SDA model is based on leveraging commercial technology. We have leveraged commercial tier 2 suppliers. This is an example of how we are leveraging commercial tier 1 suppliers.”

“We want to show that we can take commoditized commercial components and perform a DoD mission,” said Tournear. 

All eight satellites will be launched in 2022 for a demonstration of the Tracking Layer. The next step will be to add 28 more wide field-of-view satellites and one or two “medium field of view” satellites that will be developed by the Missile Defense Agency. The medium field-of-view sensors provide more specific target location data to cue weapons automatically. 

A constellation of 28 wide field-of-view and two medium field-of-view OPIR satellites would be deployed in two planes of 15 satellites each. 

Tournear said the SDA is now reviewing bids for the “mission systems engineering and integration” contract. The winner will be responsible to tie the Transport Layer and the Tracking Layer with ground systems. 

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