Space Defense Agency Sends Up Satellites For First Time
by C. Todd Lopez, DOD News
June 24, 2021
The Space Development Agency — charged with building the National
Defense Space Architecture — will, for the first time, put
satellites into orbit aboard SpaceX's Transporter 2 commercial
rocket when it launches on June 25, 2021 from Cape Canaveral Space Force
Station in Florida.
Falcon 9 mission will include five SDA satellites. These include a
pair of "Mandrake II" satellites; two "Laser Interconnect Networking
Communications System," or LINCS, satellites; and a satellite
carrying the SDA's Prototype On-orbit Experimental Testbed, or POET,
A graphic featuring a stylized globe and text that reads “SDA,
Space Development Agency.”
The SDA is working now on
delivering the National Defense Space Architecture, which includes
hundreds of satellites delivered in "tranches" every two years; each
tranche will provide more capability.
The NDSA's network of
hundreds of satellites will provide beyond line-of-sight targeting
for ground and maritime time-sensitive targets and the same for
enemy missiles already in flight. The system will provide the
ability to detect those targets, track them, calculate a fire
control solution and then deliver that solution down to a weapons
platform so the target can be destroyed.
It's expected that
the NDSA's hundreds of satellites will communicate with one another
using a network of lasers through optical communication terminals,
or OCTs. For this initial mission, Mandrake II will carry an OCT
from SA Photonics while LINCS will carry an OCT from General
Two of each type of satellite will go into orbit,
and the SDA will evaluate the ability of each OCT to operate in
"We're trying to figure out the acquisition, the
pointing and the tracking," said a senior SDA official. "Can we make
the connection; can we hold that connection; and can we exchange
data between two terminals in space with that connection?"
The official said the tests will put the satellites as far as 2,400
kilometers apart in order to test their ability to communicate via
laser with an OCT.
"We're going to try to send data
essentially from D.C. to Denver at the speed of light," he said.
"And that's what we're going to bring to the warfighter over the
next several years."
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft sits atop a Falcon
9 rocket and prepares to lift off from Launch Complex 39A at
Kennedy Space Force Center in Florida, as part of NASA’s
Demo-2 mission on May 30, 2020. A similar SpaceX rocket will
be used carrying satellites into space for the Space
Development Agency. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from
NASA Screenshot image.)
SDA's priority with the NDSA is staying on schedule and
delivering capability to the warfighter as quickly as possible.
"The key thing is always to focus on getting these capabilities
up and operational as rapidly as possible," said SDA Director Derek
M. Tournear during an online discussion last month with the Space
Force Association. "We will trade performance for schedule to make
sure that we can maintain that.
"No matter how good or how
affordable a program or platform is, if it is not there when you
need it, it's worthless ... we're always focused on schedule,"
Tournear said. "We're going to get these capabilities up on time."
As part of that focus on schedule — and cost — the SDA is hoping
to build a "market" for the satellites it plans to put into orbit.
It will buy a lot of those satellites and put them up regularly.
Agency officials expect that a market for satellites would cause
many vendors to compete regularly with their latest technology, and
many would have compatible technologies.
"SDA does not
believe in the concept of incumbents," the SDA official said. "SDA
believes in building markets. We believe in building industrial
capacity to do the kinds of things that we need to do. As we
proliferate across [low-Earth orbit], we know beyond a shadow of a
doubt that we can't depend on a single vendor for a key technology.
So, we want to make sure that multiple vendors have the capability
of building the systems that we need and that the warfighter needs."
The "transport layer" of the National Defense Space
Architecture is made up of hundreds of satellites that are
connected optically. (Graphic by Space Development Agency -
September 28, 2020)
The POET experiment will also go into space on June 25.
While Mandrake II and LINCS will evaluate optical communication
terminals, POET will be an experiment on how to process information
in space so that time isn't wasted sending it down to Earth to be
The SDA official said POET is a "battle management
capability" that will be in space.
"We're going to actually
load data and algorithms into that on orbit, and we're going to test
out data fusion in orbit for the warfighter," the official said.
Having processing capacity on the ground means unnecessary
latency in the process, which is unacceptable.
processing that we can move into space, the better off we're going
to be," he said. "POET is going to give us the first opportunity to
actually do that ... so we're really looking forward to getting
some data out of this."
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