SpaceX’s Falcon 9 workhorse rocket has secured a new US military launch contract worth $150 million, closing out a spectacularly successful year.
Announced by the Department of Defence’s (DoD) Space Development Agency (SDA) on December 31st, the contract stipulates that SpaceX will launch as many as 28 Transport and Tracking Layer (TTL) satellites on two Falcon 9 rockets in the seven months between September 2022 and March 2023. If things go according to plan, those two launches will orbit an entire “Tranche 0” satellite constellation hoped by the SDA to demonstrate the exceedingly rare ability for a US military agency to move quickly and field solutions that are both affordable and effective.
If successful, Tranche 0 will provide the US military with a globally-networked satellite constellation of communications satellites and missile detection satellites capable of delivering “warning, tracking, and targeting” data anywhere on Earth.
Curiously, SDA’s decision comes at the same time as repeated protests from Raytheon have frozen work on 8 of the ~28 satellites SpaceX is now scheduled to launch – four of which SpaceX itself won $149 million to design and build. Known as the Tracking Layer of Tranche 0, SDA contracted with SpaceX and L3Harris ($193 million) on October 7th, 2020 to build four missile warning satellites apiece. The award was SpaceX’s first satellite production contract ever, rather quietly catapulting the company into the multibillion-dollar market for US civil and military spacecraft.
SDA ultimately bowed to Raytheon’s protests and announced plans to “reevaluate” its decision to award Tracking Layer contracts to SpaceX and L3Harris, but the agency says it will not allow new bids to be submitted. In other words, unless SDA discovers some kind of error in its original decision-making process, odds are extremely low that the protest will change the outcome. In the meantime, though, the protest means that SpaceX and L3Harris are legally required to pause all work on their respective satellite development contracts until the SDA completes its reevaluation.
The month prior, SDA had awarded contracts to Lockheed Martin ($187.5M) and York Space Systems ($94M) to deliver ten “Transport Layer” satellites apiece. The Tranche 0 Transport Layer is designed to use laser interlinks to securely route Tracking Layer missile warning alerts almost anywhere on Earth while also providing some limited general-purpose communications capabilities.
Ultimately, whether Raytheon’s protests actually net the company one of the Tracking Layer satellite production contracts, SpaceX is now guaranteed to launch them.