The Defense Department’s Space Development Agency wants to blanket Earth with a constellation of low-cost, open-architecture data-relay and missile-tracking satellites whose sheer numbers, along with their 1,000-kilometer-high orbits, would theoretically thwart some modes of interference—but not all.
With all going according to plan so far, SDA expects to launch five technology-demonstration satellites this year to test the feasibility of the National Defense Space Architecture plan. SDA Director Derek Tournear updated the Washington Space Business Roundtable on the SDA’s flagship program April 14.
The envisioned mesh-networked constellation, communicating among itself with lasers, would be widely sourced to prevent a single manufacturer from adversely affecting the whole thing and frequently refreshed with new satellites to upgrade the functionality.
In terms of the fiscal 2022 federal budget request, expected in May, Tournear has “no reason to believe that there’s going to be any significant reshuffling to say, ‘No, this is not the road we want to go on now,’” he said. “Nothing has changed within the department that I can tell as far as priorities and needs and this kind of overarching plan.”
The SDA started in 2019. Tournear has a Ph.D in physics and worked as director of research and development for Harris Space and Intelligence Systems before joining the office of the under secretary of defense for research and engineering a bit earlier in 2019 as assistant director of space. SDA will move from that office to become part of the Space Force in October 2022, which is appropriate, Tournear said, because it allows SDA to provide combatant commanders with this type of equipment.
Tournear said the proliferation—numerous satellites in the constellation—is its defense against anti-satellite missiles and contends that its 1,000-kilometer-high orbits will make the satellites “fairly well protected” from directed-energy weapons on the ground.
However, he’s worried about cyber hacks and infiltration into the supply chain:
“Cyber and supply chain problems are common mode failures, so it doesn’t matter if I have one satellite or I have a thousand satellites, those may have the ability to take them all out,” he said.
Here’s the plan:
2021 tech demos: Two launches of five satellites in June and July involve Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Missile Defense Agency, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and 10 commercial vendors to demonstrate aspects of the communications and infrared missile detection.
2022: Twenty data-relay satellites (10 each by Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems) plus eight wide-field-of-view satellites for missile tracking (four each by L3 Harris and SpaceX) demonstrate that the constellation would be able to detect a hypersonic missile and to communicate among satellites and with the air and ground. Together, the 28 satellites are expected to form “the initial kernel of the mesh network and the capability that the war fighters can then use in their exercises,” Tournear said.
The average cost of the fix-priced contracts for the data-relay satellites is $14.1 million, Tournear said. He said early signs point to even lower price tags for the 2024 fleet.
“That just shows: Commoditization has burned down the prices of these satellites,” he said, referring to technologies that have become commonplace. “That really enables this proliferation. That’s how you get resiliency, and that’s how you get persistence … hundreds and hundreds of satellites at this kind of cost point.”
2024: One hundred fifty data-relay satellites provide “initial war-fighting capability,” Tournear said. “This mesh network in space that you can plug and play into with your Link 16 radios, and maybe some other tactical data links, to enable you to have that connectivity so that it can affect a fight.” SDA has asked for manufacturer comments on what’s possible at this stage and expects the request for proposals to build the satellites to go out in August 2021. Tournear said plans are underway for about another 40 tracking satellites around this stage.
Future phases would provide “full global persistence, 24/7, all around the globe,” Tournear said, plus incorporate lessons learned and adapt to address evolving threats.