The Defense Department’s next generation space architecture would consist of several layers based around a mesh network of small communications satellites, according to a document released by the Space Development Agency July 1.
A request for information lays out an early outline of what that new satellite architecture would look like and how the commercial sector can contribute to the effort.
The SDA is a new entity that the Pentagon established less than four months ago as part of the Trump administration’s focus on reorganizing the military’s space structure. The agency’s initial goal is to develop a next generation space architecture for military satellites in the face of near-peer adversaries’ growing interest in space.
“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,” read a request for information posted to the Federal Business Opportunities web site. “These potential adversaries are developing and demonstrating multi-domain threats to national security much faster than we can deploy responsive, space-based capabilities.”
The agency wants the new architecture to provide eight essential capabilities identified in a 2018 Pentagon report. In addition, the Pentagon wants to include development of deterrent capability, space situational awareness, a resilient common ground-based space support infrastructure, command and control systems and artificial intelligence-enabled global surveillance.
The Space Development Agency’s notional architecture is made up of several layers, each of which would contribute to at least one of the eight essential capabilities. They include:
A space transport layer: A global mesh network providing 24/7 data and communications.
A tracking layer: Provides tracking, targeting and advanced warning of missile threats.
A custody layer: Provides “all-weather custody of all identified time-critical targets.”
A deterrence layer: Provides space situational awareness—detecting and tracking objects in space to help satellites avoid collisions.
A navigation layer: Provides alternative positioning, navigation and timing services in case GPS is blocked or unavailable.
A battle management layer: A command, control and communications network augmented by artificial intelligence that provides self-tasking, self-prioritization, on-board processing and dissemination.
A support layer: Ground command and control facilities and user terminals, as well as rapid-response launch services.
The SDA’s immediate goal is the development of a transport layer consisting of a mesh network for communications and data in low earth orbit. As the agency has stated previously, that effort will rely heavily on DARPA’s Blackjack program - a project that will establish an initial transport layer with a 20 satellite constellation. The SDA wants to build sub-constellations around the Blackjack program to meet some of the needs it has identified, such as missile defense warnings and targeting, alternative positioning, navigation and timing services, and more. The constellation and associated sub-constellations will be made up of small mass-produced satellites in the agency’s vision, ranging from 50 to 500kg.
The next-generation space architecture posting is the first request for information that the agency has posted in its brief existence, and sets a tone for what it’s looking for from the commercial sector. Specifically, the SDA wants to know what capabilities and concepts the commercial sector can bring to bear on satellite buses, payloads, appliques and launches. Any proposal should fall into at least one of the suggested layers, the SDA stated.
“SDA intends to leverage investments made by the private sector in space capabilities (...), as well as industry best practices (e.g., mass production techniques for spacecraft buses, sensors, and user terminals),” stated the agency.
Among other things, the agency wants proposals for the following items: Small and cheap payloads that can provide high-bandwidth links between satellites; software that can track missiles from low earth orbit; software that can facilitate autonomous space sensor collection, processing and dissemination, and alternative methods for positioning, navigation and timing in case GPS is unavailable. In addition, the SDA wants feedback on the overall structure of its notional architecture. The SDA is also interested in industry concerns about data rights, security and protection, acquisition approaches and more.
In building this new architecture, the SDA is clear that it wants to be agile and flexible in adapting to new technology and threats, meaning it wants to be able to integrate upgrades within two year windows. While it’s not clear in the document how quickly the SDA wants to have the new architecture in place, the agency does emphasize that it is looking for efforts that can be demonstrated in less than 18 months.
Responses are due on August 5. The SDA plans to hold an Industry Day to connect with the commercial sector in the near future.
The document’s release comes shortly on the heels of Space Development Agency Director Fred Kennedy’s resignation in late June. Kennedy was the agency’s first director, having been originally appointed to the position by acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan when the agency was stood up March 12. Derek Tournear, the assistant director for space within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering, was named the acting director of the agency June 24. Prior to taking the assistant director position, Tournear was the director of Harris Space and Intelligence research and development. He has also served stints at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
A Department of Defense spokesperson stated that Kennedy stepping down would not change the mission of activities of the agency.
All of this comes as the U.S. military has worked to revamp its efforts in space. In addition to the stand up of the SDA, the Trump administration is also pushing for the creation of Space Force, a proposed sixth branch of the military that would be housed within the Air Force. While the Senate Armed Services Committee endorsed a version of Space Force, the House Armed Services Committee proposed a Space Corps, which would not be an independent branch of the military.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.