Smaller Satellites and the National Defense Space Architecture

Space Division

There is a shift underway away from multi-purpose satellites to smaller satellites with more specialized functions that is driving DOD acquisition decisions. In a Pentagon briefing, director of the Space Development Agency (SDA) Dr. Derek Tournear provided an update on the SDA’s planned national defense space architecture. The plan, laid out last September, called for the creation of seven new satellite constellations[1] with each constellation being comprised of dozens of smaller satellites working towards specific tasks. These tasks will include missile tracking, navigation, communication, and battle management. Strategic objectives including providing GPS will continue to be handled by existing constellations comprised of larger multipurpose satellites.

Director Tournear’s briefing provided greater detail on the SDA’s working timeline and rollout plan. Their timeline calls for launching dozens of satellites to be used in the first constellation – or “transport layer” – by the end of fiscal year 2022. This would allow the SDA to demonstrate its system’s capabilities shortly before coming under control of the Space Force. By FY 2024 the first constellation would have hundreds of satellites and by FY 2026 the transportation layer would have global coverage. Satellites would have an approximately five-year lifespan, and additional satellites would be rolled out in “two-year tranches”.

To support this plan the SDA launched two broad area announcements. One calls for “novel architecture concepts, systems, technologies, and capabilities” that enable significant improvements to planned systems and address other warfighting needs. The other calls for “industry feedback on an Optical Intersatellite Link (OISL) Open Standard” and ideas to inform future solicitations.  Tournear indicated that a solicitation for the transport layer will come this spring and that contracts could be awarded shortly thereafter.

The planned rapid pace of acquisitions will be made possible by an architecture design centered on smaller and lighter satellites that can be built and launched for tens of millions of dollars, instead of the upwards of a billion dollars per unit it has taken to field larger devices like the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites. This shift towards smaller designs has been accelerated by technological advancements. Superior launch platforms, power generation, and propulsion mechanisms have lowered the cost of fielding spacecraft. Lower design and launch costs have increased the feasibility of larger networks that compensate for the limited capabilities of individual satellites by sharing data throughout the constellation. Panelists at a recent congressional briefing about satellite technologies indicated that the trend of using smaller satellites in larger constellations is growing and will be further supported as space situational awareness systems mature.

For more information on the technologies enabling the shift to small satellites, see NASA’s report on state of the art small spaecraft technology here.

[1] A group of satellites working together as a system

Topics: Acquisition, Space

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