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Space Development Agency taps GD-Iridium team for complex ground system

A team led by General Dynamics Mission Systems and Iridium will build SDA’s initial ground architecture (Image: General Dynamics)

WASHINGTON: A team led by General Dynamics and Iridium will be responsible for developing new ground stations for the Space Development Agency’s initial warfighting constellation of 166 satellites, under a new contract worth $324.5 million.

Under the contract, the team will develop the “ground Operations and Integration (O&I) segment for Tranche 1 of the National Defense Space Architecture,” states an SDA announcement issued Thursday. That architecture includes a host of data relay/communications satellites that the Defense Department has tapped as the backbone for Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) — which in turn is the foundation for future all-domain operations.

The team members are: General Dynamics Mission Systems, which integrates secure communication and information systems; satellite communications firm Iridium; KSAT USA, the American arm of Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services; EMERGENT Space Technologies, a small Maryland based business specializing in spaceflight software; and Raytheon.

An SDA official told reporters on Thursday that the General Dynamics-Iridium team beat out seven other competitors, but declined to name them.

“Together with our partners, we’re excited to build the foundation for the SDA’s initial warfighting capability and backbone of Joint All-Domain Command and Control,” said Chris Brady, president, General Dynamics Mission Systems, in a Thursday press release.

“Iridium’s 25 years of experience operating in LEO makes us uniquely qualified for this opportunity, and we’re honored to take on this tremendous responsibility in support of this next generation network,” added Iridium CEO Matt Desch.

SDA’s Tranche 1 constellation will include 126 Transport Layer satellites for data relay, 18 experimental satellites (some owned by other entities but hosting SDA payloads), and 28 Tracking Layer satellites for missile warning.

The agency in February awarded contracts to three firms, totaling $1.8 billion, for the so-called Tranche 1 Transport Layer (T1TL) constellation, with each company to develop and build 42 prototype satellites to be delivered in time for launch to begin in September 2024. The contract amounts, however are different: York Space Systems’s contract is worth approximately $382 million; Northrop Grumman Strategic Space Systems’s, approximately $692 million; and Lockheed Martin’s, approximately $700 million.

SDA further issued a request for proposals for the Tracking Layer satellites last month, with plans to award two contracts with an eye on launch in 2025. 

The SDA official explained that the satellite developers will build and operate their own ground control facilities using standards provided by the agency, and under the agency’s acquisition strategy each subsequent tranche of new satellites could be built by different vendors. The challenge then is for the O&I contracting team to integrate the data from those various satellite control centers — something that the official admitted carries “a certain amount of risk.”

“So what we have done in our strategy is to build out a ground segment that incorporates open architecture concepts and develops interfaces that can be communicated and standardized, so that the integration with all the different SV vendors as they come on board can can feed into the overarching ground networking enterprise,” the official explained. “And so it was a very deliberate decision in how we develop our ground architecture so that it is open enough to be able to accept the the various SV providers.”

That risk is also why the new O&I contract includes a portion of funding under a cost-plus fee structure, unlike previous SDA contracts that have been based on a fixed fee, the official said.

The risk, and the complexity of the O&I mission, also has raised questions about whether the agency will apply its rolling competition model to the ground systems contract as future satellite tranches are launched. Not only will the O&I contractor be managing data from the different on-orbit systems, it also will be responsible for developing two operations centers located at Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota and Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, the official explained, as well as 14 new ground stations.

“Now at this point in time, we were establishing this ground architecture and there it’s undecided as to whether there will be a need to re-compete. But it is certainly establishing the baseline for the overall architecture in order to operate our constellation in our enterprise network,” the official said.

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