As DoD shifts to smaller satellites, new questions emerge on how to manage rideshare launches

Legislators in the NDAA 2023 recommended that the Space Force and Space Development Agency use a “common launch integrator” to manage ridesharing

WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency, a defense organization building a mesh network of satellites in low-Earth orbit, plans to begin launching payloads this fall, and by 2024, up to 176 spacecraft will be ready to fly into orbit .

The SDA constellation is started by National Security Space Launch Vendors SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, along with representatives from Space Force, said they are ready to support SDA launches. However, these will not be traditional NSSL missions flying a large primary satellite and the occasional small ride-along. The smaller satellites from SDA They are expected to launch in batches of 14 to 21 spacecraft in a single rocket.

The agency’s strategy of deploying a large constellation of small satellites for communications and missile tracking is widely supported on Capitol Hill However, lawmakers raised concerns in the National Defense Authorization Act bill of 2023 about the NSSL program’s ability to deliver the SDA’s ridesharing services on budget and on schedule.

especially the House Forces Committee suggested that the Department of Defense should hire a “common launch integrator” to help manage the integration of the SDA satellites on NSSL missiles. With a growing number of launches and a demanding SDA schedule, the HASC said it was unclear how the Space Force intends to “reduce costs, reduce risk and ensure launch reliability and performance.”

A joint launch integrator would work with SDA, satellite manufacturers and launch providers to facilitate integration of multi-launch vehicle payloads, the HASC said. The committee calls on Space Force to report on the “benefits, including cost and schedule, of using a unified launch integration solution for all types of spacecraft and launch vehicles, and any plans to use a common launch integrator for current and future programs.” ”

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A spokesman for the SDA said the agency could not comment on pending legislation. “We stand ready to support US Space Force efforts to provide the necessary briefing on the implications of a joint launch integrator if and when the law is passed,” the spokesman said SpaceNews.

The HASC proposed that DoD could use the existing US Space Force Launch Manifest Systems Integrator (LMSI) contract to handle the SDA payload integration workload.

The current LMSI contractor, Parsons Corp., advocated the HASC language. The engineering and infrastructure company was awarded a five-year, $94 million contract in 2019 to integrate small satellites as secondary payloads on NSSL, or civilian space missions. The Company operates a Smallsat integration facility in Torrance, California.

The LMSI contract would recommence in 2024, around the time the SDA expects to accelerate launches and the Space Force would be in the process of selecting launch providers for the next NSSL contract. This was announced by representatives of the Space Force You might consider working with more than two launchers.

Richard Waterman, vice president of payload integration and operations at Parsons, said the HASC proposal seeks to address the issue of how to make launch operations more efficient as more satellite manufacturers and potentially more launch providers enter the national security market.

For missions with multiple payloads like SDAs, “It’s like herding cats to get everything lined up and ready for launch because you have to bring satellite programs, each of which has very different schedules,” Waterman said SpaceNews.

SDA and Space Force would benefit from having an integrator that “synchronizes everything and gets all these systems on a single launch, which is a bit of a challenge,” he said.

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For example, if the SDA attempted to launch a batch of 21 satellites and some were late, the integrator could work with the vendors to move up other operational satellites and book the stragglers for later launches. “With an integrator, you can bring all of this together and ensure that proprietary information from vendors is not shared with competitors,” Waterman said.

Based on SDA’s projections when it begins deployment Transport layer installment 1 and Tracking layer tranche 1 2024 and 2025 would see at least one launch per month over the course of a year, Waterman said. For the NSSL program, “this is no easy feat”.

An SDA official, meanwhile, said the agency prefers flexible options for launch and would not necessarily favor universal use of a common launch integrator.

An integrator would be useful in some scenarios when multiple satellites with different hosted payloads need to be launched simultaneously, the official said, but it wouldn’t be as helpful for transport layer satellite launches, which are fairly standardized. In fact, the official said, internal SDA analysis found that using an integrator for Tranche 0 and Tranche 1 launches would increase costs and impact launch readiness schedules.

The official said if a launch integrator was needed, it would be sought in a “full and open competition,” as with all other SDA activities.

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