The Space Development Agency plans to award contracts for a mesh network in space this August, with the expectation that an initial batch of 20 satellites will be placed on orbit during summer 2022. The agency expects to release a request for proposals for the contracts May 1. The announcement came during an industry day the agency hosted over the phone April 2. The industry day was originally slated to take place during the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 2, however, after that event was cancelled due to the circumstances with COVID-19 the agency opted to hold a virtual industry day instead. According to SDA Director Derek Tournear, 580 people called in for the event.
That first batch will include 20 satellites and will comprise what Pentagon leaders are calling Tranche 0 of the SDA’s Transport Layer, a mesh network of satellites operating primarily in low earth orbit and will be able to connect space-based sensors to the war fighter.
According to Tournear, the agency has six goals for its Trache 0 Transport Layer:
- Demonstrate low latency data transport to the war fighter over the optical crosslink mesh network.
- Demonstrate the ability to deliver data from a space sensor to the war fighter via the Transport Layer.
- Demonstrate a limited battle management C2 functionality.
- Transfer Integrated Broadcast System data across the mesh network to the war fighter
- Store, relay and transmit Link-16 data over the network in near real time.
- Operate a timing signature independent of GPS references to the US Naval Observatory.
Following Tranche 0, the SDA plans to continuously upgrade and add to its on orbit constellation in two year cycles, with Tranche 1 coming online in FY2024, Tranche 2 supplementing the system in FY2026. The SDA will procure two types of satellites for Tranche 0, with one main difference being that one set of satellites will have enough optical inter-satellite links to communicate with other satellites operating in LEO and satellites in medium earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit, while the other will only have enough to communicate with other satellites in LEO.1
The SDA is a DoD office established in March 2019 and scheduled to become part of US Space Force in October 2022. This mesh network sounds remarkably similar to Elon Musk’s Starlink in structure. I would be very surprised if young Elon does not get the lion’s share of the government contracts to establish this tranche 0 transport layer.
I’m intrigued by the SDA’s terminology for this mesh network. The transport layer is a term used in the open system interconnection (OSI) responsible for end-to-end communication over a data network. It’s an internet term. Is the SDA’s effort to establish its mesh network an effort to extend the internet into space? Once this mesh network is in place, I’m curious to see how CYBERCOM fits into this. If the internet extends into LEO and beyond, will CYBERCOM see that this DoD mesh net as part of its domain? I sense a coming turf war between CYBERCOM and SPACECOM.