Investing in Space: Why the Pentagon is spending billions to build its own satellite constellation

Lockheed Martin’s Tranche 0 Transport Layer satellites are seen in one of the company’s processing facilities.
Lockheed Martin

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Overview: Deep in the Tranches

Low Earth orbit satellite constellations are all the rage, but up to this point they’ve been the prospective domain of commercial entities.

Now the U.S. military wants in on the action — thanks in part to inroads made by the likes of Starlink, OneWeb, Planet

Lockheed Martin

SDA is about to launch the second mission of its constellation known as the “Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture,” or PWSA.

“It’s a mesh network, an internet in space that allows you to [connect] from any point on Earth and [back down to] any point on Earth,” said Chris Winslett, Lockheed’s program director for building Transport satellites.

One key motivator behind the Pentagon building out its own constellation – rather than utilizing commercial networks that are already operational: security.

“Any time you’re using an open network, it’s always less secure … the other side is controlling the availability, the quality of service,” Winslett explained. “If you’re just a user, one of many users on another network, you’re subject to whoever owns that network and how they set their priority and the traffic that’s going to be on that network that may not be your traffic.”

PWSA is designed to be built out in tranches, with each tranche representing a new generation of satellites with increasingly greater capabilities. Each tranche also consists of two “layers:” Transport, for mesh communications, and Tracking, for targeting locations past the horizon view of assets on the ground (known as “beyond line of sight targeting”) and missile detection and tracking.

SDA is currently launching Tranche 0, the “demonstration generation” of PWSA consisting of 28 satellites – built by York, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and L3Harris

“SDA’s focus is harnessing commercial development to deliver a proliferated constellation of satellites … to build resilience, and also obviously to harness the tremendous development that’s happened in the space industry over the last number of years,” Elzea told reporters during a recent roundtable.

SDA has already begun awarding manufacturing contracts for satellites in Tranches 1 and 2 – with over $5 billion in total awards to date. In full, PWSA represents the Space Force contribution to the Pentagon’s ambitious Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) project, aimed at creating a unified network across its military branches. Satellites are one piece of that greater puzzle.

The resilient aspect of PWSA comes from having hundreds of satellites in orbit, instead of just a handful of larger and more expensive ones: An attack on one satellite does little to cripple the DOD’s network, and it’s faster and cheaper to replace a damaged or destroyed one.

It’s still early days for PWSA, with years and hundreds of satellites to go. But so far SDA’s Tranche 0 program director Mike Eppolito is “incredibly happy with the progress we made with the satellites that we have on orbit at this point.”

“I think we’ve shown industry that they can count on SDA to continue procuring these satellites, so they’re able to invest in the components that aren’t commodities at this point, and we’ll get to that fully commoditized satellite that we’re looking for,” Eppolito said.

Investing in Space programming note: I will be out next week, but back the following for the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris!

What’s up

SpaceX launches 11th crew to the ISS with the Crew-7 mission for NASA delivering a quartet of astronauts to the orbiting research laboratory. – CNBCViasatCNBCDOJ sues SpaceX over alleged hiring discrimination, in a case that says the company “wrongly claimed” export control laws prevented it from hiring refugees and people granted asylum in the U.S. The DOJ investigation dates back to 2020. – CNBCNASA has too much demand for its Deep Space Network, with around 40 missions relying on the antennas to communicate commands and data back to Earth. The DSN infrastructure is aging, and a project to upgrade the network is years behind schedule. – Ars TechnicaSpaceX test fires booster for next Starship launch, in a 6-second test that saw all 33 of the Raptor engines ignite. Two of the Raptor engines shut down prematurely, but SpaceX appeared to view the test as successful. – SpaceNewsVirgin GalacticVirgin GalacticSpaceport America economic output pegged at $138 million for 2022, with an impact analysis that showed the New Mexico facility supported 811 jobs and generated $12.9 million in taxes. – Spaceport AmericaWashington startup Starfish stops the death spiral of its Otter Pup spacecraft, two and a half months after it was deployed. “The Otter Pup died twice during the de-tumbling process, and it just happened to come back to life,” Starfish co-founder Austin Link said. – GeekWireSpiderOak demonstrates cybersecurity software in orbit, deploying and testing its OrbitSecure tech on the ISS through an Amazon Web Services computing device provided via Axiom Space. SpiderOak said the demo validated its technology’s ability to “run containerized workloads in modern orchestrated environments with secure data channels from orbit to ground.” – SpiderOakAstra’sTechCrunchFirefly and Millennium enter ‘hot standby phase’ for Victus Nox mission, which represents a Space Force effort to demonstrate the ability to launch a satellite within 24 hours of a requested window. – FireflyAriane 6 critical hot-fire test postponed again, with the European Space Agency saying a problem with ground equipment was at fault. – SpaceNewsSoviet satellite adds space debris in orbit: The defunct 32-year-old satellite appears to have been struck by debris from another Soviet satellite. –

Industry maneuvers

GlobalstarGlobalstarScience Applications International Corp. (SAIC) awarded $574.5 million Space Force contract over seven years for a ground-based network of radar sensors for missile warning and space surveillance capabilities. – SpaceNewsSpire awarded $4.6 million NASA contract on behalf of the NOAA to develop a “microwave sounder” for providing insights into the Earth’s atmosphere. – Spire

Market movers

Spire performs 1-for-8 reverse stock split, bringing the company’s stock to nearly $5 a share as it aims to avoid delisting. – Spire

Boldly going

Paul Jacobs named CEO of Globalstar: The former CEO and Executive Chairman of Qualcomm, Jacobs comes to the satellite communications operator along with senior executives of his firm XCOM Labs. – Globalstar / CNBCRobert Long selected to become Space Florida CEO, to succeed the retiring Frank DiBello. Long retired from the U.S. Space Force last month, having led Space Launch Delta 30 in California. – Florida TodayHenio Arcangeli Jr. appointed to Virgin Galactic’s board of directors, with existing director Wanda Austin retiring, effectively immediately. Arcangeli Jr. was most recently the SVP of American Honda Motor’s Automobile Division. – Virgin GalacticIsa Notermans hired as Australian startup Fleet Space’s Chief People Officer, coming to the company after serving as the Chief HR Officer of Sydney-based Airtasker. – FleetBrian Komlos named Rocket LabKomlosBret Perry joins Anduril Industries as an associate director of business development for its rocket motor division. Perry previously spent nearly five years at Virgin Orbit on its sales team before the company went under. – Perry

On the horizon

Aug. 31: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.Sept. 1: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches SDA Tranche 0 satellites from California.Sept. 2: ISRO’s PSLV-XL launches the Aditya L1 solar mission from India.Sept. 3: SpaceX and NASA Crew-6 mission splashes down.Sept. 3: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.

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