Bidder Maxar is Protesting SDA’s Request for 126 SmallSats

On the same day industry proposals were due for a batch of 126 small satellites for the Space Development Agency, one of the contenders filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office.

Maxar Technologies, which provides satellite imagery and builds spacecraft, filed its protest Oct. 8 with the GAO. Offers were due the same day under the request for proposals issued by the SDA for what it calls the Transport Layer Tranche 1.

The GAO will have to issue a report on the protest within 30 days and a decision within 100 days—Jan. 18, 2022.

“Maxar is proud to be able to offer its commercially leading space capabilities to the Space Development Agency’s (SDA) Transport Layer T1TL Request for Proposal,” a Maxar spokesperson said in a statement in response to queries by Air Force Magazine. “Maxar wants to ensure that the government is following its own rules in connection with the procurement and is confident that the SDA is committed to complying with the [federal acquisition regulations].”

SDA characterized protests as “not uncommon”:

“SDA is working with the GAO to achieve fast, accurate and equitable resolution to the protest received on the agency’s Tranche 1 Transport Layer solicitation,” an SDA spokesperson told Air Force Magazine. “SDA is committed to full and open competition and the agency understands protests are a potential and not uncommon part of that process.”

Maxar has won contracts in the past from the Air Force, the Army, U.S. Special Operations Command, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, among others, to provide satellite imagery, develop AI-based algorithms, and analyze geospatial data. 

However, it has less experience in Defense Department contracts for hardware. In 2018, NASA selected the company’s Space Systems Loral unit as one of three prequalified candidates to compete for a contract called Small Spacecraft Prototyping Engineering Development and Integration—Space Solutions, which was intended to help the Pentagon’s Space Rapid Capabilities Office procure commercially-developed small satellites. The company did not announce any further DOD contracts.

Transport Layer Tranche 1 is intended to be one part of a large constellation of Defense Department satellites that officials say will provide missile warning, communications, data coverage and sharing, and other capabilities for the Pentagon. It’s envisioned with multiple layers and multiple tranches, or batches of satellites, per layer that frequently get updated or replaced with newer tranches. All told, SDA has said the constellation could comprise anywhere from 300 to more than 500 small satellites.

The request for proposals called for up to 126 satellites, divided between six orbital planes split between multiple vendors. Each bidder was instructed to develop two of the orbital planes, along with 42 satellites.

SDA had set a timeline of late 2024 for launching Tranche 1 and is still evaluating how Maxar’s protest may affect that timeline. Tranche 0—a collection of 28 satellites that will provide ballistic missile warning and data sharing capabilities—is expected to launch by March 31, 2023.

At a recent virtual forum hosted by Politico, SDA Director Derek M. Tournear said the agency’s goal is to roll out new capabilities, including new tranches, every two years.

“That is essentially as fast as industry can produce those components,” Tournear said.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond have both said the new constellation will provide more resiliency, spreading capabilities out to ensure adversaries cannot disrupt data flow by taking out one or two satellites.

Indeed, SDA said the tracking constellation, when complete, will provide “assured, resilient military data and conductivity” over 95 percent of Earth with at least two satellites at any given time, as well as one satellite covering 99 percent of locations on Earth.