The Space Development Agency plans to award contracts for a mesh network in space this August, with the expectation that an initial batch of 20 satellites will be placed on orbit during summer 2022. The agency expects to release a request for proposals for the contracts May 1.

The announcement came during an industry day the agency hosted over the phone April 2. The industry day was originally slated to take place during the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 2, however, after that event was cancelled due to the circumstances with COVID-19 the agency opted to hold a virtual industry day instead. According to SDA Director Derek Tournear, 580 people called in for the event.

That first batch will include 20 satellites and will comprise what Pentagon leaders are calling Tranche 0 of the SDA’s Transport Layer, a mesh network of satellites operating primarily in low earth orbit and will be able to connect space-based sensors to the war fighter.

According to Tournear, the agency has six goals for its Trache 0 Transport Layer:

  1. Demonstrate low latency data transport to the war fighter over the optical crosslink mesh network.
  2. Demonstrate the ability to deliver data from a space sensor to the war fighter via the Transport Layer.
  3. Demonstrate a limited battle management C2 functionality.
  4. Transfer Integrated Broadcast System data across the mesh network to the war fighter
  5. Store, relay and transmit Link-16 data over the network in near real time.
  6. Operate a timing signature independent of GPS references to the US Naval Observatory.

Following Tranche 0, the SDA plans to continuously upgrade and add to its on orbit constellation in two year cycles, with Tranche 1 coming online in FY2024, Tranche 2 supplementing the system in FY2026. The SDA will procure two types of satellites for Tranche 0, with one main difference being that one set of satellites will have enough optical intersatellite links to communicate with other satellites operating in LEO and satellites in medium earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit, while the other will only have enough to communicate with other satellites in LEO.

The agency is tasked with building the National Defense Space Architecture, which will be made up of hundreds of satellites operating in low earth orbit providing a multitude of missions, from tracking hypersonic weapons to providing alternative position, navigation and timing data.

The Transport Layer will serve as the backbone of the NDSA, connecting the various satellites to each other and to the war fighter. And according to Tournear, the Transport Layer will provide the key space network component to the Department of Defense’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control.

“The transport layer, which is what the draft RFP and the industry day was talking about today, is going to be the unifying effort across the department. That is going to be what we use for low latency (communications) to be able to pull these networks together, and that, in essence, is going to be the main unifying truss for the JADC2 and that effort moving forward. That is going to be the space network that is utilized for that,” explained Tournear.

The agency released the draft RFP March 26. The SDA is soliciting feedback on the draft RFP for Tranche 0 through April 17 and plans to release the full RFP May 1. Contracts will be awarded in August, Tournear said, though the agency wants to see the proposals before deciding how many companies it will award contracts to.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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