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The US Space Development Agency (SDA) has awarded contracts totalling $342 million (€290 million) to two companies to build Tranche 0 of the Tracking Layer for the National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA), according to a DoD statement issued on 5 October.

L3Harris Technologies, (Melbourne, FL) and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (Hawthorne, CA), also known as SpaceX, are each expected to build four overhead persistent infrared imaging (OPIR) satellites for the tracking layer of the NDSA by the end of FY2022.

The satellites will be able to provide missile tracking data for hypersonic glide vehicles and the next generation of advanced missile threats,” explained SDA Director, Derek Tournear. He added that each company will build satellites of their own design, meeting criteria set by the SDA. They must all be able to perform the missile tracking mission, then also be able to communicate directly with transport layer satellites via a laser communications link.

This most recent contract award is the second for development of the NDSA. About a month ago, contracts were awarded for transport layer satellites to Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems, each of whom is to build ten satellites. The contracts for both the tracking and transport layers are part of Tranche 0 of the NDSA, which consists of 28 transport layer and 8 tracking layer satellites. There will be a separate solicitation to launch those 28 satellites.

We call it 'tracking' because it's missile tracking — so it provides detection, tracking and fire control formation for hypersonic glide vehicles, ballistic missiles ... any of those kinds of threats,” Tournear explained. When tracking layer satellites detect a threat, such as a ballistic missile, they send that information to satellites in the transport layer. “The transport satellites are the backbone of the National Defense Space Architecture […] They take data from multiple tracking systems, fuse those, and are able to calculate a fire control solution, and then the transport satellites will be able to send those data down directly to a weapons platform via a tactical data link, or some other means.”

Development of the NDSA is based on two pillars: proliferation and spiral development, with the system ultimately consisting of hundreds of satellites. “With Tranche 0 in 2022, we will provide enough capability to where people can start to experiment with what those data could do, and figure out how they could put that into their operational plans for battle,” Tournear stated.

Tranche 1, due in 2024, will include a couple of hundred satellites in the transport layer and a few dozen in the tracking layer. With Tranche 2, in 2026, the SDA will continue to build out the system as needed. By then the agency should have global coverage, ensuring that the capabilities provided by the NDSA could be available to commanders anywhere in the world. “Every two years thereafter, we would continually spiral out and proliferate more satellites with new capabilities and, in essence, retire satellites with older capabilities as we develop new tranches.”

Tournear said that although the NDSA is certainly based in space, its focus is mostly back on Earth — in support of troops conducting operations on land, at sea and in the air. “Our architecture is entirely warfighter-focused for the terrestrial battlefield […] Our goal is to be able to provide real-time targeting data for targets, for time-sensitive targets and for missiles, so that the terrestrial warfighter can utilize space to be able to affect their mission in real time. We're focused on making sure that we can provide capabilities from space.”

The NDSA offers a multi-layer approach to providing real-time targeting data for ground-based troops. (Image: SDA)

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