Space Development Agency awards low Earth orbit experiment contracts

WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency is building out its experimentation capabilities, choosing two companies this week to help test new technology on orbit.

SDA announced Oct. 4 it chose Colorado-based Ball Aerospace to build and operate its National Defense Space Architecture Experimental Testbed, or NExT, and provide an initial 10 satellites that will launch in fiscal 2024. The agency awarded the company a prototype agreement worth up to $176 million. NExT offers a platform for SDA to test and refine new sensor technology over time as threats advanced and warfighter needs change.

The second award was made Oct. 6 to Colorado-based York Space Systems, which is being acquired by private equity firm AE Industrial Partners. Under the $200 million SDA deal, the company will deliver 12 space vehicles as part of the agency’s Tranche 1 Demonstration and Experimentation Satellites effort.

The T1DES systems are scheduled to launch in fiscal 2025 in support of the agency’s Transport Layer, a network of communication satellites that can pass information and send data to users on the ground.

Both contracts will support the SDA’s vision to create a constellation of hundreds of satellites operating in low Earth orbit, residing 1,200 miles or less above the planet’s surface. SDA is launching those satellites in “tranches,” each of which will not only offer additional capacity, but new technology. Along with the transport systems, the agency is developing missile warning space vehicles as part of its Tracking Layer.

SDA Director Derek Tournear told reporters Oct. 6 that experimentation efforts like these will play an important role in helping the agency ensure the technology it provides to military users is actually meeting their needs. If T1DES experimentation goes well, he said, the technology could be included in future Transport Layer tranches and the 12 satellites could be used operationally.

Tournear noted that the NExT payloads, which will be provided by other government agencies rather than contractors, are higher risk than T1DES. The goal there, he said, is to reduce that risk and determine whether the technology could be viable for SDA satellites in the future.

The experiments will focus not only on payload capabilities, but will also answer important questions about whether those systems can be launched in large quantities and how they might integrate with command-and-control equipment on the ground.

SDA is scheduled to launch its first tranche of tracking and transport satellites in December, a three-month delay from its original plan due largely to supply chain issues and a 2020 bid protest. Asked how the agency is mitigating supplier concerns as it builds out its capability layers, Tournear said it’s a persistent challenge.

“Every day we continue to chase down gremlins to make sure that we can get the parts and the labor needed to deliver on time,” he said. “It’s an ongoing issue. I think it’s going to be an ongoing issue.”

Tournear said that as companies strengthen their subcontractor base and SDA establishes a regular cadence of launching one batch of satellites and releasing solicitations for the next, he thinks supply chain issues will level out.

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