SDA Awards Third Contract for 18 Additional Beta Variant Satellites

by Yuri Nikolaenko

Rocket Lab to Manufacture 18 Satellites for SDA's Satcom System

Jan 23, 2024

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The Space Development Agency (SDA) has chosen Rocket Lab National Security as another key industry partner to contribute satellites towards its next-generation global communications architecture for the military. Rocket Lab has been awarded a $515 million contract to supply 18 satellites augmenting the Beta variant within the Tranche 2 transport layer of the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA).

RocketLab HQ. Credit: RocketLab

As described by the SDA, the PWSA is a multi-faceted system comprised of various spacecraft layers in low-Earth orbit that collectively enable critical capabilities including satellite communications, data relay, missile tracking, and missile warning across branches of the armed forces.

The Tranche 2 layer itself will consist of 216 satellites segmented into Alpha, Beta, and Gamma configurations, each bringing tailored advantages that together will provide global reach and connectivity. The SDA states this proliferation of satellites operating in concert will facilitate vital missions like over-the-horizon targeting and tracking of advanced missile threats.

Moreover, the Tranche 2 transport fleet is considered fundamental for achieving Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), the Department of Defense’s landmark initiative to network sensors and weapons platforms across all domains into a single grid architecture. With most of the demonstration Tranche 0 layer already deployed and the first Tranche 1 launches scheduled monthly beginning September 2024, the transport layer marks a significant scale-up towards operational capability.

Preceding Rocket Lab’s addition, prior Beta contracts were awarded to Lockheed Martin for $816 million to produce 36 satellites and Northrop Grumman for $733 million to build 36 satellites. Furthermore, a joint $1.3 billion agreement was granted to Northrop Grumman and York Space Systems to construct a combined 100 Alpha satellites.

With Rocket Lab’s 18 new satellites, the complete Beta roster now totals 90 satellites across the three companies, representing over $2 billion invested. SDA Director Derek Tournear welcomed Rocket Lab to the program, citing their selection demonstrates the commitment to growing an innovative industrial base necessary to sustain the architecture long-term.

Per the initial Beta solicitation, the SDA required advanced satellites able to transmit data using various frequency band links to enable modern communications and data-sharing capabilities. Citing bolstering tactical communications as the rationale, the SDA elected to shift certain satellites originally slated for the Gamma layer over to the Beta program instead. Even so, 26 Gamma satellites are still planned, intended to deliver comparable capabilities to Beta with additional advanced waveforms.

The 18 satellites supplied by Rocket Lab are set to operate from lower inclination orbits relative to the 72 Beta satellites already under contract from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The SDA states this approach will ultimately improve robustness once the full Tranche 2 layer is deployed. Beta launch timeframes are scheduled from September 2026, followed by Rocket Lab’s contributions achieved no later than July 2027 to complete the transport layer backbone enabling cutting-edge global military communications into the future.

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As threats pose increasing risks to communications worldwide, defense agencies require capabilities to maintain the continuity of strategic initiatives and dominance of the information domain. BusinessCom’s field-proven C2 SATCOM solution equips them with the connectivity and security necessitated by modern defense imperatives.

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