WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency selected General Dynamics to develop the ground stations that will operate its communications and missile tracking satellites.

Under the seven-year, $324.5 million contract, the company will develop two operations centers, field 14 ground stations and manage network operations for the first 166 satellites that will make up “Tranche 1″ of SDA’s National Space Defense Architecture. The agency announced the contract May 26.

The Pentagon created SDA in 2019 and tasked it with developing a constellation of hundreds of small satellites operating in low orbit, relatively close to Earth’s surface. The first of those satellites, dubbed Tranche 0, will launch this year and will test the agency’s vision for boosting resiliency through proliferation.

Tranche 1 is meant to provide SDA’s initial warfighting capability, and its first satellites will launch in 2024. The operational ground segment is expected to be delivered by then to support initial operations.

An SDA official speaking on background to discuss the details of the contract told reporters May 26 that the agency chose the General Dynamics proposal from seven bids. The official would not confirm which other companies competed.

General Dynamics is teaming with Iridium Satellite Communications, a McLean, Va.-based space firm. Iridium operates a communications network in LEO, which will help reduce risk on the technology side and allow the team to focus on integrating the ground segment with the various satellite providers. The official noted that integration is the highest-risk phase of the program.

Tranche 1 satellites will launch in phases. The first communications, or Transport Layer, satellites will launch in 2024. The Tranche 1 Tracking Layer, which includes satellites that detect and track missiles, is scheduled to launch in 2025.

The official noted that the base contract will run through 2025, but could be extended through 2029. SDA has made no determination on whether the same provider will support future satellites, the official said, adding that this first operations and integration contract is “establishing the baseline for the overall architecture in order to operate our constellation and our enterprise network.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.