LEO (low Earth orbit) is, as the title indicates, an orbit that is quite close to the Earth’s surface. It is generally at an altitude of under 1000 km but can be as low as 160 kilometers above Earth – that is low in comparison to other orbits although still quite far above the Earth’s surface. In comparison, most commercial planes do not travel much higher than 14 km, therefore even the lowest LEO is over 10 times higher. The SDA (Space Development Agency) has made a significant contribution to the exploration of LEO (low Earth orbit).
The SDA (Space Development Agency) intends to buy up to ten satellites to carry military payloads for low-Earth-orbit testing. This new satellite procurement, known as the NExT experimental testbed, was originally part of an SDA initiative known as T1DES, but is now a stand-alone program.
The T1DES project called for the launch of 18 satellites with industry-developed experimental payloads. The intention was to connect them to the entity’s 126-satellite broadband constellation, Transport Layer Tranche 1, which would launch in 2024. SDA will move through with the Transport Layer deployment and employ a new contractor to build ten satellites that would house payloads built by government for technology testing under the existing proposal.
Tranche 1 Transport Layer will exploit and expand on the capabilities established in Tranche 0 Transport Layer through targeted technology advancements, mission-concentrated payload configurations, improved integration, and increased production efficiencies. The T1TL will enable global communications access and persistent regional encrypted connection in support of warfighter activities worldwide by acting as the backbone for JADC2 (Joint All Domain Command and Control), which is based on low-latency data transmission, direct-to-weapon platform connectivity, and sensor-to-shooter connectivity.
SDA will convene an industry day briefing on June 22 to review the NExT procurement with possible contractors. For the term of the contract, the selected company will design, build, and manage the NExT satellites and ground equipment.
In addition, the contractor will be responsible for procuring commercial rideshare installations for the 10 NExT satellites. Between March of 2024 to March of 2025, SDA plans to deploy the experimental payloads in 2 planes of four and one plane of two. To communicate with the Transport Layer satellites, the NExT satellites will have optical crosslink communications terminals.
According to an SDA official, NExT was originally part of the T1DES-X project, although it was separated to be its tranche-independent initiative. According to the official, SDA still intends to buy approximately 12 T1DES satellites.