SpaceX Receives $149 Million Custom Satellite Contract From Space Development Agency

The Space Development Agency (SDA) has awarded a $149 million custom satellite contract to SpaceX. The contract will leverage SpaceX’s experience with building and launching satellites for its Starlink constellation to add capacity to the Department of Defense’s efforts to detect and track missile launches using wide field-of-view (WFOV) overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) sensors.

The SDA is part of the United States Department of Defense. According to its website, it “orchestrates the development and fielding of DoD’s future threat-driven National Defense Space Architecture.”

Under the new contract, SpaceX will direct the construction of four OPIR satellites. It has already indicated that it plans to outsource the creation of hardware components like the OPIR sensors to unnamed subcontractors.

Space Development Agency director Derek Tournear said that the selection of SpaceX was based on its “extremely credible proposal” that builds on its experience with the Starlink assembly line. SpaceX has already launched hundreds of Starlink satellites out of a planned constellation of 12,000 satellites in order to achieve its goal of high-speed, low-latency Internet service that can compete with ground-based Internet service providers and also provide Internet-based communications services for disaster response teams. The ability to stick to an established schedule took top priority as a consideration for the awarding of the contract.

Another company, L3Harris, was also awarded a similar contract for another four satellites in the same constellation. It plans to build the satellites in-house. L3Harris will receive $193.5 million for the successful completion of the satellites.

According to Tournear, the successful completion of the assigned contract will demonstrate the capacity for newer commercial aerospace companies like SpaceX and L3Harris to take a larger role in providing the technical expertise for accomplishing Department of Defense missions.

“The SDA model is based on leveraging commercial technology. We have leveraged commercial tier 2 suppliers. This is an example of how we are leveraging commercial tier 1 suppliers,” said Tournear.

The new satellites could launch as early as September 2022 and will become part of a planned 30-satellite constellation that DARPA is calling “Tracking Layer Tranche 0.” It will integrate with a 20-satellite “Transport Layer” constellation currently being built by Lockheed-Martin. The Transport Layer satellites will be capable of relaying data from the Tracking Layer satellites to the ground-based military units that need it to quickly and effectively respond to threats posed by possibly weaponized missiles launched by other nations. The SDA is currently considering bids to integrate the two layers.