The Space Development Agency has tapped Northrop Grumman and York Space Systems to build and operate satellites that will be part of the agency’s second tranche of data transport spacecraft that are intended to provide warfighters with persistent global communications capabilities, SDA announced Monday.
The latest contracts — which combined are worth approximately $1.3 billion — are for the Alpha variants of SDA’s Tranche 2 transport layer. Under the other-transaction prototype agreements, Northrop Grumman has received $732 million to deliver 38 spacecraft, while York Space Systems is set to receive $617 million for 62 platforms, according to an SDA press release.
Both companies will also provide associated ground systems, operations and sustainment capabilities for the 100 Alpha satellites, per the release.
The award marks the second of three planned variants for the Tranche 2 transport layer, which will be part of SDA’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA). The layer will be made up of 216 satellites across three different variants — Alpha, Beta and Gamma — that have slightly different capability requirements.
The agency previously awarded Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman a combined $1.5 billion in August for the Beta variant of the Tranche 2 transport layer. It plans to launch the first satellites in the Tranche 2 transport layer no later than September 2026.
“The T2TL Alpha awards demonstrate our forward momentum in the procurement phase for Tranche 2 of the PWSA to support delivery beginning in 2026,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said in a statement. “With the Beta variant and now the Alpha constellation, we’ll have more than 170 T2TL satellites on order. SDA is leading the DoD into launching proliferated constellations into low-Earth orbit to enhance responsiveness, resilience, survivability, and warfighting capability beyond our current space systems architecture.”
Overall, the PWSA is expected to include hundreds of spacecraft in low-Earth orbit that carry critical technologies for satellite communications, data transport, missile warning and missile tracking. With low-latency data relay, sensor-to-shooter connectivity and tactical satellite communications, the transport layer is considered a key piece to achieving Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) — the Pentagon-wide effort to connect all of the services’ sensors and shooters under a single network.
The Alpha systems in the Tranche 2 transport layer are focused on providing “global communications access and deliver persistent, regional, and encrypted connectivity to support missions like beyond-line-of-sight targeting and missile warning and missile tracking of advance missile threats as part of the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture,” an SDA press release stated.
While Tournear has said in the past that the main mission for Alpha birds will be to enable Link-16 coverage, the satellites will also have optical cross-links, Ka-band and onboard battle management processing capabilities.
As for the Beta variants, those satellites will enable high-speed data transfer via S-Band, Ultra High Frequency (UHF) Satellite Communications and Integrated Broadcast Service (IBS) links. Gamma, meanwhile, will function similarly to Beta while also having requirements for advanced waveforms.
SDA recently released a request for information seeking industry feedback by Nov. 6 on Tranche 2 Gamma payload development. The RFI responses will be considered for incorporation into a final request for proposal solicitation, with a release date anticipated in early 2024, a defense official told DefenseScoop.
All of the Tranche 2 transport layer will build upon previous layers in the PWSA. The agency has already launched some satellites for its demonstration layer, dubbed Tranche 0, which will consist of 27 satellites in orbit. The first operational tranche of satellites, known as Tranche 1, will begin launching on an aggressive monthly schedule in 2024.
The recent award is yet another for Northrop Grumman, as the company is heavily involved in the Space Development Agency’s PWSA. To date, the company has received approximately $2.7 billion in multiple awards from the agency for contributions to the constellation, including the recent Alpha variants, 36 satellites for the Beta variants of Tranche 2 transport capabilities, 42 satellites in the Tranche 1 transport layer and 14 satellites in the agency’s Tranche 1 tracking layer.
York Space Systems has also been involved in the constellation’s development from the get-go. SDA initially awarded the company in 2020 to build 10 satellites for Tranche 0, and has since tapped the contractor for the agency’s Tranche 1 transport layer and its experimental payloads known as the Tranche 1 Demonstration and Experimentation System (T1DES). Now with the award for Alpha variants, York Space Systems has received approximately $1.2 billion in contracts for the PWSA.
Updated on Oct. 30, 2023 at 4:15 PM: This story has been updated to include additional information about a forthcoming solicitation for Tranche 2 Gamma payload development.