WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force said it expects to choose a pool of companies by December for its Space Technology Experimentation Platform 2.0, which it will use to buy commercial satellites to host defense experiments.

The Space Test Program office, which will manage the STEP 2.0 contract, announced May 8 it released a draft solicitation for the effort. Lt. Col. Jonathan Shea, the office’s director, told reporters during a briefing the same day that contractors selected for the program will be eligible to compete over a 10-year period to build satellites, integrate experimental payloads and provide support from the ground.

Shea’s office, dubbed STP, works with companies, universities and government agencies to find rides to space for approved technology demonstration projects, which usually means identifying an upcoming mission that has availability for more satellites.

While in the past organizations would typically propose payloads that were already matched with satellites, Shea said that in recent years more of those experiments have featured sensors or other equipment “on their own” without an associated spacecraft.

Creating a contract mechanism that provides a flight-proven satellite bus for those payloads is a way to “ensure that we’re able to do this for years to come,” he said.

“That’s the theory that we’re trusting and putting into play here,” Shea said.

Early next year, after the service selects its STEP 2.0 providers, the program will likely award an initial task order. Shea said the program has identified two experiments that would likely fly on the mission, Space Test Program-8, sometime in 2025.

Experiment review board

The STP office partners closely with the Defense Department’s Space Experiments Review Board to identify and vet projects proposed by its commercial, government and university partners – and the annual meeting where that happens is taking place May 9 through 11.

The board will consider more than 60 projects during this year’s meeting and will prioritize and rank the proposals based on relevance and importance. The STP office will then match the experiments with a launch mission that has availability for more satellites.

Col. Eric Nelson, director of the capability delivery directorate in the Air Force’s space acquisition office, told reporters in the same May 8 briefing that the process plays an important role in ensuring that “worthy experiments” aimed at demonstrating technology that could benefit the department find a ride to space.

Shea said the goal is to find a spot for all proposed projects, but when they launch depends on their unique needs and how much space STP can find on future missions.

Funding is also a factor in how many experiments the program can launch. The Space Force requested about $30 million for the program in its fiscal 2024 budget, which is a $5 million increase from what Congress enacted last year. That funding level will only pay for 10 to 15 experiments to launch, according to Col. Joseph Roth, director of the service’s Innovation and Prototyping Acquisition Delta.

“I would say it’s been a challenge, fiscally, to get those payloads on,” he said during the same briefing.

Shea noted that as commercial launch rates increase, projects that can’t find a ride through STP have more opportunities to work with launch providers to find space on their missions for their payloads. Though the service would prefer to have the means to facilitate that process, he said it does offer more avenues for experiments to get to orbit.

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.

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