LOMPOC, Calif. — A SpaceX rocket launched the Space Development Agency’s first satellites April 2, sending a mix of 10 missile tracking and communication spacecraft into low Earth orbit in the agency’s highly anticipated debut mission.
The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the U.S. Space Force’s West Coast range at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Following the flight, the rocket’s booster — which provides thrust to the launch vehicle — returned to its landing zone at the base. The mission was scheduled for March 30, but SpaceX delayed the launch for three days and has not disclosed the reason.
The rocket carried two SpaceX-built satellites that will detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles, which can travel and maneuver at Mach 5 speeds, and eight spacecraft built by York Space Systems that will use optical links to transfer data from space-based sensors to users on the ground.
SDA was created in March 2019 to help the U.S. Department of Defense build a more resilient space architecture in low Earth orbit — located within about 1,200 miles of the planet’s surface — and demonstrate a new way to develop and acquire space systems.
Modeled after the Missile Defense Agency, which tests and fields ballistic missile capabilities, SDA’s acquisition strategy is defined by two key concepts: “spiral” development and proliferation.
The vision is for hundreds of small, relatively low-cost satellites to augment Pentagon constellations of large, expensive spacecraft. While it typically takes the military five to 10 years to conceive and then launch a satellite, SDA wants to shrink that to about two years, fielding new technology at a regular pace, or spiral.
This first mission is proof the agency can meet that timeline, according to SDA Director Derek Tournear. Despite schedule challenges that pushed the launch from October 2022 to December and then to March, the Tranche 0 satellites are launching just over two-and-a-half years of the agency’s initial contract awards in August 2020.
“We’re pretty excited to show that the model actually does work — to be able to do that proliferation to get the capabilities to the warfighter at speed,” Tournear told reporters March 29 during a pre-launch briefing.
The 10 vehicles are part of SDA’s initial batch, dubbed Tranche 0. A second Tranche 0 launch of 18 satellites built by Lockheed Martin, L3Harris, York and SpaceX is scheduled for June. According to Tournear, the total cost to develop, launch and operate the first 28 spacecraft through fiscal 2025 is $980 million.
Together, the spacecraft will provide a baseline capability that military users can begin to test and train with, Tranche 0 Program Director Mike Eppolito told reporters.
“The satellites that we have up there, the intent there is to get them in the warfighters’ hands so they can start developing their techniques to be able to use them,” he said during the same March 29 briefing. “It’s intended to be the demonstration tranche that allows them to sort of get their feet wet and start using the capabilities that we’re putting on orbit.”
Future tranches will bring additional satellites and incorporate new technology.
Tournear and Eppolito said SDA has learned a lot from its work on Tranche 0 — from working with commercial providers to navigating schedule challenges and a global pandemic to adapting to supplier issues. Eppolito recalled that at one point, forest fires in France caused one of the program’s antenna’s suppliers to have to shut down its factory.
“I think we solved a lot of those problems because of how agile we are,” Eppolito said.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.