WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency, which is building a constellation of low-cost communication and missile-tracking satellites, awarded prototype agreements totaling $1.5 billion to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to build data transport satellites for its Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture.

Each company will develop 36 spacecraft designed to provide encrypted connectivity and communication for warfighters operating around the globe. Lockheed’s contract is worth $816 million and Northrop’s $733 million, SDA announced Aug. 21.

The satellites are part of the third generation — dubbed Tranche 2 — of the American agency’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture, a fleet of hundreds of small satellites operating in low Earth orbit, about 1,200 miles above the planet’s surface. Along with the data transport satellites, the constellation will feature spacecraft that can detect and warn of missile threats.

Established in 2019, the agency’s strategy is defined by two key acquisition concepts: spiral development and proliferation. The PWSA will augment constellations of large spacecraft with hundreds of small, relatively low-cost satellites. While it takes the military on average five to 10 years to conceive and then launch a satellite, SDA wants to shorten that to about two years and field technology at a regular pace, or spiral.

The agency expects to launch the 72 transport satellites built by Lockheed and Northrop in 2026. The spacecraft will be similar to early tranches, but will feature advanced tactical communication technology, SDA said.

Both companies have experience building earlier iterations of SDA’s transport satellites. Lockheed provided 10 spacecraft for Tranche 0, which will launch later this year, and is building 42 for Tranche 1.

Northrop is also developing 42 Tranche 1 transport satellites, the first of which are slated to launch in late 2024.

“Creating a low-Earth orbit communications architecture that meets the needs of the warfighter is complex,” Northrop’s vice president of communication systems, Blake Bullock, said in a statement. “With Northrop Grumman’s extensive military satellite communication experience and a deep mission understanding, we are helping SDA make its vision a reality.”

Lockheed announced Aug. 4 it opened a 20,000-square-foot small-satellite processing facility where it will build and test its SDA satellite as well as other spacecraft and technology demonstrators.

“SDA’s unique acquisition approach expedites the proliferation of this critical technology, and Lockheed Martin’s strategic partnerships with a network of suppliers and small businesses will ensure we’re aligned with SDA’s strategy for accelerated delivery,” the company’s vice president for protected communications, Joe Rickers, said in a statement.

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.

More In Space