In the coming months, the Space Development Agency (SDA) plans to begin the demonstration phase of a novel approach to transmitting data to support military operations.

The SDA – a U.S. Space Force organization – is building a space data network that includes a transport layer and a missile-tracking sensor layer. After two successful launches, the agency now has 19 communications satellites and four missile-tracking spacecraft in orbit. These make up the Tranche 0 portion of the projected network known as the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture.

On Sept. 2 a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off carrying 13 U.S. military satellites. The first 10 satellites were launched on April 2.

“While the launch is very exciting news, it’s what we will demonstrate on-orbit that matters – the ability to provide the warfighter with tactical data links, beyond-the-line of-sight targeting, and the missile warning/missile tracking of advanced missiles,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said in a statement.

The Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture aims to deploy an internet in space that can move data from satellite to satellite, and pass information to military systems on the ground, at sea, and in flight.

As the agency begins to plan for the demonstration phase, there are two key goals it must consider: test the radio and optical communication payloads on the satellites that will make up the Transport Layer and provide links to military systems with minimum delay.

The satellites will be space nodes of the military’s Link 16 network – an encrypted tactical data protocol used to connect aircraft, ships, and ground vehicles so they can exchange data, including text, voice messages, and imagery.

The testing of the space data network was originally planned for this summer, however, due to pending frequency licensing approval from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration SDA put the tests on hold. SDA also needs authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to transmit Link 16 signals in national airspace over a test site at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

In addition, SDA has begun the building phase of Tranche 1 satellites and plans to field the first operational generation of Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture beginning in late 2024. Tranche 1 will include approximately 150 Transport and Tracking satellites and is projected to launch in late 2024 and 2025.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.