Tag Archive for: SDA

The Space Development Agency (SDA) is planning to launch 72 data-transport satellites in 2026, which will be part of the Tranche 2 Transport Layer Beta portion of a United States military mesh network. According to Frank Turner, SDA’s technical director, these satellites will have new and advanced capabilities, including direct-to-weapon communications. This represents a significant step forward in the development of military satellite technology.

The Tranche 2 Beta satellite order worth $1.5 billion was split between Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, both of which had previously been awarded contracts for Tranche 1 Transport Layer satellites. SDA, an organization under the U.S. Space Force, is working on creating a mesh network of military satellites in low Earth orbit known as the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. This network includes both a data transport layer and a missile-tracking sensor layer.

During the contract award process for Tranche 2 Beta, SDA received six bids. Turner mentioned that the agency would have preferred to involve more vendors, but the complexity of the mission and the specialized requirements, such as the need for advanced radios and waveforms for military tactical communications, limited their options. As a result, the selection of experienced Department of Defense (DoD) contractors was necessary.

SDA has expressed a desire to collaborate with a broader base of prime contractors and avoid favoring incumbents. However, due to the unique and complex nature of the payloads in Tranche 2 Beta, only a few companies in the industry possess the capabilities to meet these specific mission requirements.

The Tranche 2 Transport Layer Beta satellites are designed to integrate with radios using Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and S-band frequencies, which are essential for military and intelligence operations in the field. Additionally, each satellite is equipped with an Integrated Broadcast Service (IBS) payload. IBS is a legacy Department of Defense (DoD) network used to transmit tactical and strategic intelligence as well as targeting data from various sources. Typically, IBS payloads operate from geosynchronous satellites like the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), which was developed by Lockheed Martin.

However, the challenge for the Transport Layer, according to Frank Turner of SDA, is to provide the same IBS service from low Earth orbit, which has never been attempted before. This is a complex task that involves developing the necessary technology and infrastructure to facilitate these communications from satellites in low Earth orbit, rather than the traditional geosynchronous orbit. Turner emphasized that this is a significant and challenging endeavor.

The primary goal of these capabilities is to fulfill the requirements and requests of the warfighter. They are looking for direct-to-weapon connectivity that can enable real-time engagements and communication with various assets in the field.

Furthermore, the Beta satellites will be tasked with establishing what Turner described as “extremely difficult” contacts with aircraft and missiles in flight. This indicates that the mission involves not only providing data connectivity but also facilitating real-time, dynamic communication and coordination with moving targets in the sky, adding an additional layer of complexity to the mission.

The Space Development Agency (SDA) is taking a commercial-like approach to build the Department of Defense’s (DoD) mesh network. This approach involves collaborating with a broad array of suppliers specializing in small satellites and laser communications terminals. SDA aims to create a flexible and diverse ecosystem of partners to meet its evolving satellite communication needs.

Frank Turner explained that the decision to choose two incumbent providers for Tranche 2 Beta was not taken lightly and was the result of extensive deliberation. SDA’s preference is to expand its supplier base and work with a wider range of contractors in the future.

SDA is actively engaging in discussions with military leaders to determine the necessary capabilities for Tranche 3 of the Transport Layer. This indicates the agency’s commitment to continually adapting and enhancing its satellite network to meet evolving defense requirements.

Currently, SDA is preparing for the launch of its second batch of Tranche 0 satellites and plans to commence launching 126 Tranche 1 satellites in September 2024. These Tranche 1 satellites will be equipped with inter-satellite optical links and are considered the infrastructure of the network. Tranche 2, which follows, will enable the network to support advanced communications capabilities, marking a significant milestone in SDA’s mission to create a robust and effective satellite communication system for the DoD.

Lockheed Martin has reached a pivotal milestone with the successful completion of a critical design review for a communications satellite intended for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency (SDA).

The project at hand involves Lockheed Martin’s role in constructing 42 satellites for the Tranche 1 Transport Layer, a mesh network situated in low Earth orbit. This intricate network is designed to provide support for U.S. military operations and is being developed in collaboration with the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency.

Lockheed Martin secured a substantial contract worth $700 million in February 2022, tasked with producing these satellites. The selected satellite buses are manufactured by Terran Orbital, enhancing the project’s collective expertise. Notably, the Tranche 1 Transport Layer initiative encompasses a total of 126 satellites, including contributions from other prominent space industry players such as Northrop Grumman and York Space Systems.

A groundbreaking aspect of the Tranche 1 Transport Layer is its pioneering use of smaller and more cost-effective satellites for global military communications and data relays. This approach marks a significant departure from traditional methods, highlighting the evolving landscape of defense communication technology.

Kevin Huttenhoff, Lockheed Martin’s Senior Manager for Space Data Transport, highlighted the collaborative effort between Lockheed Martin and SDA in thoroughly vetting the satellite and ground designs, which encompassed not only Lockheed Martin’s contributions but also those of various suppliers.

The critical design review process itself was notable for its meticulousness. In order to simulate the actual satellite, Lockheed Martin employed 3D printing to create a full-scale replica of the Tranche 1 satellite, providing a comprehensive visual representation for evaluation.

Furthermore, the review encompassed an optical communications terminal interoperability test, an integral element due to all SDA satellites being equipped with optical terminals for in-space communication.

Looking ahead, SDA is targeting late 2024 for the commencement of launches for the Tranche 1 Transport Layer, marking a significant step forward in the implementation of this innovative satellite network. Lockheed Martin’s achievements in this endeavor further solidify its reputation as a leading figure in aerospace technology and defense innovation.

As part of a distinct contract valued at $187.5 million, Lockheed Martin undertook the construction of 10 satellites designated for the Tranche 0 Transport Layer. Alongside these, one satellite from York Space and two missile-tracking satellites developed by SpaceX were also slated for inclusion. Initially planned for a June launch, these 13 satellites, now including Lockheed Martin’s contributions, are rescheduled for a late August launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

However, this launch experienced delays due to encryption security concerns, which prompted coordination with the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA’s certification is imperative for encryption systems utilized in Department of Defense (DoD) platforms. The SDA official explained that productive exchanges with the NSA have resolved the encryption matters, instilling confidence in the successful resolution of these challenges and paving the way for the anticipated launch by the end of the month.

Lockheed Martin’s involvement in this venture has been seamless, with Kevin Huttenhoff, Senior Manager for Space Data Transport, confirming that the 10 satellites produced by Lockheed Martin are in their final stages, prepared for shipping. This aligns with the company’s commitment to delivering robust and advanced space technologies for defense and communication purposes.

Digital twins have gained significant attention in the space industry as a promising technology for designing complex satellite networks. Although the technology is still evolving, companies specializing in this sector are witnessing an increasing demand for digital engineering tools.

Sedaro, a startup based in Arlington, Virginia, is among the companies at the forefront of developing digital engineering software specifically for space systems. Founded in 2016, Sedaro has received approximately $3 million in small business research awards from the Defense Department and NASA. The company has also attracted venture capital funding.

According to Robbie Robertson, the co-founder and CEO of Sedaro, the scale and complexity of satellite constellations make digital twins a necessity. However, he noted that in some cases, legacy digital design tools have been rebranded as digital twins, causing confusion, especially in military programs. Robertson emphasized the potential of digital twins to manage complexity in the planning and design of large satellite constellations, enabling a level of management that surpasses human capabilities.

The adoption of digital twins is gaining momentum in military satellite programs as the Department of Defense (DoD) plans for the next generation of space systems. Sedaro’s digital engineering software has found utility in the Pentagon’s requirements organization, which is responsible for overseeing major systems acquisitions. By employing a digital twin of a missile-tracking satellite network, decision-makers can fine-tune requirements before procuring the actual satellites.

Additionally, the U.S. Space Force is utilizing a digital twin to facilitate the planning of an experiment called Tetra 5, which aims to refuel satellites in orbit. In this case, the program necessitates the delivery of a digital twin alongside the physical system, showcasing the importance of incorporating digital twins in space-related initiatives.

Istari, a digital engineering startup, has gained the attention of military space programs with its innovative approach. The company is backed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and led by former Pentagon procurement official Will Roper. Roper believes that the development of military aircraft, satellites, and other systems could be accelerated and made more cost-effective by utilizing modeling and simulation for design, testing, and certification processes.

Currently, the lack of integration among various models and simulations used by different contractors in military procurement programs hinders efficiency. Istari aims to address this challenge by offering an AI platform that serves as a common operating system for models and simulations. This approach allows for seamless integration and interoperability, enabling any model to be utilized regardless of its ownership.

The Space Force stands to benefit greatly from this technology. For instance, satellite operators and engineers would be able to train on the same model, creating a true digital thread. This would enable engineers to continually update and improve their designs with real-time data from users, fostering a more efficient and collaborative design process.

Robbie Robertson emphasizes the importance of clarifying the concept of digital twins to customers who may be overwhelmed by the marketing buzzwords and varying definitions. He defines a digital twin as a high-fidelity virtual representation of a physical system that remains synchronized with its real-world counterpart throughout its entire lifecycle.

Sedaro, recognizing the skepticism surrounding digital engineering, launched an updated version of its cloud-based digital engineering tool in April. The company aims to demonstrate that digital engineering is not merely an overhyped trend but a valuable technology with practical applications.

Robertson acknowledges that many people have been disappointed with the current state of digital engineering for space systems. This disappointment stems from the lack of significant improvements in the complexity and quality of hardware technologies enabled by software tools.

In the realm of DoD satellite programs, a combination of in-house and outdated commercial software products has traditionally been used to develop digital twins. However, these legacy technologies are ill-equipped to handle the scale and complexity of future military satellite constellations, including those planned by the Space Development Agency for low Earth orbit architecture.

The Space Development Agency (SDA) is requesting digital representations of communications satellites from contractors in its latest solicitation. While the agency has not explicitly called for digital twins, Robertson notes that they are moving in that direction. The concept of digital twins can be customized to meet the specific needs and goals of each organization.

Robertson believes that the most exciting future application of digital twins for the Department of Defense (DoD) is to have digital twins of operational satellites. Traditionally, engineering simulations are seen as design tools used before the physical system is created. However, the primary use of digital twins will be in operations, where they can simulate systems at a high fidelity to optimize their utilization, identify vulnerabilities from a military perspective, and enable predictive maintenance. This aligns with the widespread use of digital twins in other industries.

SDA is requesting proposals for a demonstration of laser communications between orbiting satellites and aircraft in flight.

As it prepares to start deploying a mesh network in low Earth orbit, the Space Development Agenc (SDA) is looking out for proposals for a demonstration of laser communications between orbiting satellites and aircraft in flight.

Last month, the agency issued a “special notice” asking vendors to submit by Sept. 2 proposals on how they would conduct a live demonstration of laser crosslinks between SDA’s Transport Layer satellites and a moving aircraft.

An SDA-funded experiment to test out this technology was launched in June 2021 but was unsuccessful. General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems launched two cubesats carrying optical communications terminals to test inter-satellite links but the cubesats never reached their intended orbit and the company was unable to establish contact. One of the goals of the experiment was to establish optical communications between the satellites and an optical terminal on a General Atomics unmanned aircraft. 

In the new solicitation, SDA asks vendors to figure out a way to connect one or more of the 20 Tranche 0 Transport Layer satellites — projected to launch in September — with an aircraft that would be chosen by the vendor. 

SDA is interested in a live flight demonstration but also would consider a phased experiment, starting with space to ground, space to a moving ground vehicle, and space to an airborne platform.

“This demonstration is concentrated on space to airborne test only to research, design, develop and test,” said the solicitation. “Testing must include successful demonstration of pointing, acquisition and tracking, and the capability to acquire and maintain the link with stability to pass up to 1 gigabit per second test data.”

Experts say optical communications between air and space is a tough technical challenge due to the difficulties of pointing and navigating while maintaining a link to a moving aircraft. It also requires correcting the turbulence in the atmosphere that interferes with lasers.