144 satellites, 4 space rivals, 1 big opportunity

“Star Wars” is back, and it will mean a lot of money for American defense contractors.

Almost four decades ago, President Ronald Reagan first proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka “Star Wars”, to protect the American homeland from foreign missile attacks. Four decades later, the US Space Force is building its latest version of Star Wars, a surveillance satellite system comprising a “tracking layer” to detect missile launches coupled with a “space transport layer” to relay information. on those launches to Earth.

So far, four separate companies have won contracts to build this system.

Image source: Getty Images.

Star Wars in two parts

In October of last year, the Pentagon Space Development Agency (or SDA, which joins the Space Force in 2022) hired SpaceX and L3Harris (NYSE: LHX) to each build four Wide Field of View (WFOV) satellites for the system’s tracking layer.

Separately, Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) and York Space Systems, a private company, was contracted to build 10 transport layer satellites each. Thanks in part to these contracts, Lockheed and York announced plans to build new factories to mass-produce small satellites for the military.

Once again with the feeling

This year, SDA is poised to take the system to the next level, announcing a call for tenders to increase the transport layer of its missile defense system sevenfold as part of “Tranche 1” of the project.

As SpaceNews.com reported last month, SDA is offering contracts to build 144 “relatively small, mass-produced space vehicles” spread across six orbital planes (although it is accepting bids for just two orbital planes for the moment). This layer will relay information on missile launches detected by the tracking layer, and will also perform broad “combat management applications” for combatants on the ground, explains the SDA. At full power, the transport layer should cover 99% of the Earth’s surface at any given time, and 95% of the surface will be covered by at least two satellites simultaneously.

SpaceNews notes that SDA is looking to hire “multiple vendors” on these contracts, and that each of SpaceX, L3Harris, Lockheed Martin, and York Space are expected to bid – with potential for Airbus, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon also bid.


Bids are due by October 8, and the SDA expects to award contracts in January 2022. Upon receipt of the award, winners are expected to start launching satellites by 2024. (A quirk goes on. has crept up since the contracts were first announced: SDA will be taking bids to build 126 satellites first, and 18 later, instead of all 144 at once in orbit.)

Viewed in the context of other government space projects, this is a quick timeline for development and deployment – essentially three years from conception to the start of deployment. In contrast, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope project, for example, has been in development since 1996 – and always is not in orbit 25 years later!

The price

So congratulations are in order: the Pentagon has started to keep its promise to accelerate the speed at which it is growing and putting payloads in the sky. Perhaps even more impressive, however, is the price attached to this project.

Recall that the Pentagon spent around $ 294 million for the first 20 “Tranche 0” transport satellites last year – $ 14.7 million per satellite. Well, as the project gains momentum, SpaceIntelReport.com reports that building an additional 144 satellites will cost just $ 2 billion more, or less than $ 14 million apiece to cover Earth with blanket. satellite for military communications.

Why small satellites are a big opportunity

In doing so, the Pentagon will also pose a serious logistical challenge to potential adversaries. Now even countries with anti-satellite capabilities face the reality that in a future conflict, shooting down a US military satellite will solve less than 1% of their problem.

And that’s, in a nutshell, why I think small satellites and small satellite launchers have an important role to play in both industry and defense in the future. Small satellites are already attractive because of their low cost of manufacture and the low cost of launching small rockets from Rocket lab (NASDAQ: RKLB) or Virgin Orbit (or large SpaceX rockets, deploying entire constellations simultaneously). And now we see that the constellations of small satellites provide a redundancy function which makes them harder for adversaries to disrupt, or for terrorists or hackers, because whenever one satellite is incapable, another can simply be disrupted. take its place until a replacement can be initiated.

Add to that the acceleration in the speed of manufacture and launch, and it seems to me that space is becoming a much safer place to do business.

This article represents the opinion of the author, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a premium Motley Fool consulting service. We are heterogeneous! Challenging an investment thesis – even one of our own – helps us all to think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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About Travis Durham

Travis Durham

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