The US Department of Defense’s Space Development Agency (SDA) announced its plans to award contracts for a “mesh network” in space starting from August 2020.
The agency expects to release a request for proposals for the contracts May 1st.
The expectation is to have an initial batch of 20 satellites placed in orbit in Summer 2022.
This was announced during an industry day event hosted on April 2nd.
That first batch will include 20 satellites and will comprise what Pentagon leaders are calling Tranche 0 of the SDA’s Transport Layer, a mesh network of satellites operating primarily in low earth orbit and will be able to connect space-based sensors to the war fighter.
SDA has budgeted $100 million for those satellites in 2021, SDA head Derek Tournear said.
Following Tranche 0, the SDA plans to continuously upgrade and add to its on-orbit constellation in two-year cycles, with Tranche 1 coming online in FY2024, Tranche 2 supplementing the system in FY2026.
The Tranche 0 Transport Layer has six goals:
- Demonstrate low latency data transport to the war fighter over the optical crosslink mesh network.
- Demonstrate the ability to deliver data from a space sensor to the war fighter via the Transport Layer.
- Demonstrate a limited battle management C2 functionality.
- Transfer Integrated Broadcast System data across the mesh network to the war fighter
- Store, relay and transmit Link-16 data over the network in near real time.
- Operate a timing signature independent of GPS references to the US Naval Observatory.
The purpose of the project is to deter adversaries in cislunar space.
“The department decided that due to funding constraints, there were higher priority places to put that funding,” SDA head Derek Tournear told reporters last week. “So, right now that is for the study phases.”
This is because, the Pentagon is worried about China’s potential to undertake military operations in cislunar space, the region between Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO, 36,000 kilometers in altitude) and the Moon.
The original architecture of the SDA included 200 satellites to monitor that region and at least three “advanced maneuvering vehicles” (AMVs) that would operate like mini-space planes and carry unspecified capabilities to counter adversary spacecraft.
The draft Request for Proposals (RFP) is focused on what SDA calls a “data transport layer” designed to allow low-latency communications. It will use optical cross-links between satellites, and link to users on the ground via the venerable Link 16 system used widely by the services and allies, and the Integrated Broadcast System (IBS) that carries Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) communications.
Tournear said that more than 500 industry reps attended the industry day, originally slated to take place at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs but instead done virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The ability to rapidly move time-sensitive data between proliferated assets and across multiple domains is absolutely critical,” Aaron Rogers, Maxar Technologies’ director of National Programs said in a statement to Breaking Defense. “We’re pleased to see that the Space Development Agency is seeking to leverage the proven agility and innovation found within the commercial space industry to affordably and reliably deliver its transport layer satellite constellation. Maxar is studying the mission requirements to decide how to propose a solution for this program.”
Development of a data transport mesh network, enabled by optical satellite cross-links, is a key enabler for DoD’s high-priority Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort, Tournear said. Indeed, he said, part of SDA’s role is to ensure “the unifying effort on the space side for JADC2.”
In the future, a capability to protect the satellite from attacks would be worked on, but currently there’s nothing.
SDA’s strategy does call for an eventual “Emerging Capabilities Cell to incubate new functional capabilities and address emerging or evolving threats, such as a Deterrence Capability to deter hostile action in deep space (beyond Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) up to lunar distances),” according to the RFP.
The presentation that SDA made includes a slide that shows how the transport layer would be the middle one in the agency’s plans for a three-layer space architecture.
The lowest layer will consist of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites flying about 600 km above the earth.
The Pentagon has said that this sensor layer is crucial for tracking future highly maneuverable hypersonic weapons, spotting missile launchers, and noting sudden troop movements.
Those satellites will send the data up to the transport layer, which itself will fly beneath a second layer of sensor satellites orbiting at roughly 1,200 km.
These would also be able to watch and track the trajectory of hypersonic or other missiles.
All of the satellites will work to share timing and navigation data with the ground, essentially serving as an alternative GPS system.
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