Space Development Agency’s first satellites to launch on SpaceX mission

The Defense Department’s Space Development Agency envisions deploying a constellation of hundreds of small satellites called the “Transport Layer” for global communications, data relay, and targeting. Credit: Space Development Agency

The first five payloads from the Space Development Agency, an organization charged with rapidly infusing emerging technologies into the U.S. military’s space programs, are among more than 80 satellites awaiting launch from Cape Canaveral Tuesday on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Established in 2019, the Space Development Agency plans to deploy hundreds of small satellites to enable improved communications for the U.S. military. SDA’s strategy leans on the rapid development of new commercial space technology, including new types of sensors and cheaper, easier-to-produce small satellites that can be deployed in large constellations in low Earth orbit.

SDA plans to launch the first tranche of 28 satellites to provide initial infrared missile detection and low-latency data relay services in late 2022 and early 2023. Twenty of those satellites, part of the “transport layer,” will be developed by Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems for communications support. The other eight “tracking” satellites will be supplied by SpaceX and L3Harris for missile detection and tracking.

The agency’s first technology demonstration satellites are stacked on top of a Falcon 9 rocket on the Transporter 2 rideshare mission set for liftoff at 2:56 p.m. EDT (1856 GMT) Tuesday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

“Right now, we’re in the ready to fly stage for our demonstrations,” said Derek Tournear, director of the Space Development Agency, in a June 22 panel discussion at the Defense One Tech Summit. “In just a few short days, we will launch five demonstration satiates, and these are in conjunction with partners.”

The satellites include two Mandrake 2 spacecraft developed by SDA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack program, and the Air Force Research Laboratory. The small microsatellites were built by Astro Digital to demonstrate “very affordable” laser communications technology, according to Tournear.

The Mandrake 2 satellites were originally supposed to launch on SpaceX’s Transporter 1 rideshare mission in January, but they were damaged during pre-flight preparations at Cape Canaveral. The damage caused the Mandrake 2 satellites to miss the launch, but the spacecraft were repaired in time for the Transporter 2 mission.

Once in orbit, the Mandrake 2 satellites will perform long-range optical communications experiments using inter-satellite crosslinks to pass data between the spacecraft on laser beams. The Mandrake 2 satellites carry optical communications terminals supplied by SA Photonics, which says the demo system will support data transmission rates of 100 megabits per second at distances over thousands of miles.

SDA has another laser communications experiment on the Transporter 2 mission.

The two Laser Interconnect Networking Communications System, or LINCS, satellites were developed and built by General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems.

The Mandrake 2 and LINCS satellites will perform experiments to test out the optical communications terminals’ ability to point, acquire, and track each other in orbit, while the spacecraft are moving around the planet at speeds of more than 5 miles per second.

“We’re going to try to send data essentially from D.C. to Denver at the speed of light,” SDA says on its website. “And that’s what we’re going to bring to the warfighter over the next several years.”

SDA and General Atomics also plan to test the ability of the LINCS satellites to beam data down to an MQ-9 Reaper drone next year.

“The whole goal is so that you can actually form this means of a very high bandwidth, low latency, low probability of jam communication network to be able to go down to any platform, whether it be on the surface, whether it be on ship, or whether be in the air,” Tournear said. “So we’re really excited that that opens up a completely new way to move data so we can start to enable the warfighter.”

The MQ-9 Reaper aircraft will be flying at about 25,000 feet during the space-to-air laser communications trial.

“Optical communication to an air, ground, or maritime asset proposes a different set of challenges than space-to-space communication, because you have to account for distortions to the optical beam caused by atmospheric elements like weather, clouds, dust, and even wind,” said Nick Bucci, vice president of missile defense and space Systems at General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems.

Tournear said laser communications will enable the military to relay more data faster than possible with traditional radio frequency communications systems. Optical communications are also harder for the enemy to intercept and jam.

“The key aspect is we want to have this mesh network, all laser connected,” he said. “But obviously if you just have the data in space, it’s useful but not sufficient. You want to be able to get those data directly down to the warfighter and directly down to terrestrial theaters. So we can do that obviously through RF — we can do that now — and in the future want to do that optically.”

Artist’s concept of the LINCS satellites. Credit: General Atomics

SDA’s fifth payload launching on the Transporter 2 mission is called POET, short for the Prototype On-orbit Experimental Testbed.

The POET experiment is riding on a commercial satellite named YAM 3, or Yet Another Mission 3, built by Loft Orbital.

POET, which was developed in concert with DARPA, will experiment with how to autonomously process data in space without having to transmit the information down to Earth for processing.

Tournear said the POET experiment will take electro-optical data and combine it with other data on-board the satellite in space, then send the information to the ground as a “fused detection solution.”

“So we’ll be able to do that as a demonstration of what could be the future of battle management command and control algorithms and operating systems,” Tournear said.

“We want to get this down to single digit seconds, from being able to fuse data from as many locations and as many sensors as possible,” he said. “All of those data get fused autonomously on the transport satellites and then that gets sent down directly to the commander in theater.”

With autonomous battle management capabilities in space, the military will be able to more quickly deliver information and intelligence to commanders on the battlefield.

SDA’s initial group of operational satellites, called Tranche 0, are scheduled for launch in September 2022 and March 2023, according to Tournear.

The agency plans to issue a request for proposals in August to buy around 150 more optical data relay satellites for the “Tranche 1” network. SDA will select vendors for the Tranche 1 satellites in January, and the fleet should be ready for launch in September 2024, he said.

“SDA does not want to do a lot of technology development,” Tournear said. “SDA wants to take technology that is ready to go and essentially proliferate that within two years.”

Eventually, SDA foresees a network of hundreds of satellites for missile and naval targeting, all connected with laser communications terminals.

“The system will provide the ability to detect those targets, track them, calculate a fire control solution and then deliver that solution down to a weapons platform so the target can be destroyed,” SDA says on its website.

SDA’s laser communication, sensor, and on-board processing experiments will pave the way to deploying such a network.

“SDA wants to create this market,” Tournear said. “We’re delivering and we’re launching these capabilities every two years, so on the order of 100 to 150 satellites every two years.

“So folks that are developing on-board processing, or commoditized (spacecraft) buses, or commoditized optical crosslinks … we want them to turn that around and be able to propose that directly into our constellation,” he said.

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