SDA Kicks Off Future Space Systems Research

The Space Development Agency is embarking on its quest to build out a new network of small satellites for communications and and data sharing—similar to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Blackjack program envisioned here—before branching into missile defense, command and control, and more. DARPA illustration.

The Space Development Agency is launching its first formal talks with industry about a new vision for military space, in the midst of unexpected leadership turnover and with its initial tranche of funding in the works.

The agency will lay out its path forward for companies at a July 23 industry day at Aerospace Corp. in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Proposals for a network of satellites, payloads, and software are due Aug. 5.

Fred Kennedy, SDA’s recently departed inaugural director, wanted to firm up the agency’s plans for spreading hundreds of satellites and sensors throughout low Earth orbit—the area up to 1,200 miles above the surface—by the end of the summer. While the SDA still has to prove whether it can put its first usable systems into space by the end of 2022 as Kennedy wanted, the solicitation indicates the agency is still taking its first steps with some urgency under new leadership.

“In an era of renewed great power competition with an emergent China and a resurgent Russia, maintaining our advantage in space is critical to winning these long-term strategic competitions,” SDA said in a July 1 solicitation. “Potential adversaries seek to undermine this goal by employing strategies that exploit real or perceived vulnerabilities in our current and planned national security space systems. In addition, these potential adversaries are developing and demonstrating multi-domain threats to national security much faster than we can deploy responsive space-based capabilities.”

The plan hinges on SDA’s ability to first put up a layer of small, mass-produced satellites that can pass along communications signals and other data around the clock. Building on that, SDA also wants to launch satellites for ballistic and hypersonic missile warning, targeting, and tracking; to keep an eye on time-critical targets; to track other objects in space; to provide an alternative to GPS; and to collect and send data from space sensors to direct forces below. It also envisions being able to launch new or replacement satellites at will, and to buy mass-produced ground controls instead of unique stations as well.

In April, Kennedy also discussed “advanced maneuvering vehicles,” notional platforms that would let the military head off threatening adversaries traveling through space.

Instead of waiting several years to upgrade hardware and software, the idea is to update these systems at least once every two years so they can adjust to new threats. Put together, the network could offer multiple paths to send information to warfighters, even if some pieces are disabled.

The July 1 notice calls for the Pentagon to piggyback on private-sector investments and lease their services—high-level disagreements over which partially led Kennedy to resign last month.

Still, the Defense Department will need to reassure commercial industry about the prospect of their technology becoming targets in space if they partner with the military, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said at a recent AFA Mitchell Institute breakfast. Adding military payloads to commercially built satellites can cut down on costs, though how many satellites the Pentagon will buy versus lease remains to be seen.

SDA must also carve out its niche among a slew of other military space development entities like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which has caused friction with leaders throughout DOD. The agency is asking Congress for $525 million to spend on studies and prototypes through 2024.