SpaceX successfully launched 10 satellites for the U.S. Space Development Agency (SDA) on Sunday, March 28th, from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
These first 10 spacecraft are part of a multibillion-dollar network of hundreds of small satellites, the Transport and Tracking Layer, that will demonstrate the low-latency communication links to support the warfighter with a resilient network of integrated capabilities, including tracking of advanced missile threats, from low-Earth orbit (LEO).
The PSWA Constellation
The Proliferated Space Warfare Architecture (PSWA) is a satellite fleet developed by the Space Development Agency to detect and track missiles in flight, as well as relay the tracking data directly to ground, air, or naval forces using existing tactical radio networks. This will allow U.S. and allied forces to shoot down enemy missiles.
The PSWA was created in response to the threat of hypersonic missiles from China and Russia, which could evade conventional billion-dollar missile tracking satellites that are better suited to detecting and tracking large intercontinental ballistic missile launches. The PSWA consists of small satellites with infrared sensors, which will be able to detect and track hypersonic missiles in flight.
The first phase of the PSWA consists of 28 satellites launching this year, as a proof of concept for the missile tracking and data relay network.
This initial phase includes the launch of eight data relay spacecraft built by York Space Systems, and two missile tracking platforms manufactured by SpaceX, which were sent into a 620-mile-high (~1000 km) orbit.
SDA plans to launch additional satellites in successive generations, or tranches, with each tranche introducing new technology.
The constellation will eventually consist of hundreds of small satellites that will be able to withstand the loss of a few spacecraft, making the network more resilient to attack than the Pentagon’s conventional space assets.
The PSWA is enabled by the growth of the commercial marketplace, which has made it possible for small satellites to be developed and launched more rapidly and at a lower cost.
The use of small satellites also allows for a faster development cycle, with the PSWA expected to deliver enhanced capabilities every two years.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket played a critical role in the success of the launch. The rocket lifted off at 7:29 a.m. PDT on Sunday, March 28th, from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg, flying south from its launch pad and arcing toward a near-polar orbit inclined 80 degrees to the equator.
Then, the reusable first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket then landed back at Vandenberg Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4) less than eight minutes after liftoff, while the upper stage continued into orbit with the 10 SDA satellites.
At the request of the military, SpaceX did not provide live video coverage of the upper stage burn and deployment of the SDA satellites into orbit.
SpaceX’s live webcast of the launch focused instead on the return of the Booster, B1075-2, to Landing Zone 4 at Vandenberg.
The launch of the first 10 prototype satellites is a major milestone for the Space Development Agency and the U.S. military as a whole. Derek Tournear, director of the SDA, stated:
“This is a major accomplishment for SDA and for the whole Department of Defense. It shows that our key pillars, proliferation and spiral development, can deliver for national security space.”
The launch demonstrated that SDA can keep a schedule to deliver enhanced capabilities every two years, and it has set in place the keystone for a multibillion-dollar network of hundreds of small satellites that will improve defenses against emerging threats.