Space Commerce

DoD Space Test Program Eyes Satellite Contract Awards

By Douglas Messier
May 26, 2023
Filed under , , , ,
DoD Space Test Program Eyes Satellite Contract Awards
STP-H8 launched on Dec. 21, 2021 and is planned for a three-year mission life. It is operating on the Japanese module of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is one of the main destinations for DoD payloads launched by STP.
Image credit: NASA.

The US Space Force announced during a recent teleconference call with media that it expects to make awards in December under its Space Test Experiment Platform (STEP) 2.0 program, which will procure spacecraft to host Department of Defense (DoD) sponsored payloads designed to test and mature new technologies.

Vendors selected for the DoD satellite contracts will build satellites, integrate payloads onto them and launch vehicles, and provide ground support for orbital operations, DoD officials said during the conference call on May 8. STEP 2.0 will award indefinite delivery/indefinite quality contracts.

DoD is pursuing a commercial approach in which it buys what it can from the commercial sector and builds only what it must, said Col. Joseph Roth, director of Innovation and Prototyping Acquisition Delta at Space Systems Command.

The goal of STEP 2.0 is to be able to bundle experiments on flight-proven satellite buses that have operated in space for at least one year, Lt. Col. Jonathan Shea, who heads up the Space Test Program at the Space Systems Command, said during the conference.

Officials released a draft request for proposals earlier this month. Vendors have until June 12 to reply with questions and comments.

The Space Test Program (STP) sponsors experiments designed to test and mature experimental technologies and materials with potential military and civilian uses. Defense officials consider the program vital to keep abreast of growing international competition.

“As the technology advances, so do our threats in space,” Shea said. “And it is critical that we stay ahead of the threats to ensure our space capabilities remain secure and effective for years to come.”

STP also flies STEM payloads designed by university students, said Dr. Lawrence Robertson, lead space experimentalist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. Students who participated in the program were instrumental in developing the commercial small satellite industry.

Shea said the majority of STP payloads are launched on SpaceX Transporter rideshare missions or get subsidized rides to the International Space Station (ISS). Rideshare missions and new launch vehicles have created more opportunities to launch experimental payloads.

“Anything that wants to go around 400 kilometers circular (orbit), we got a great deal for you,” Shea said. “When you start talking about more exquisite orbits, like sun-synchronous or orbits even in LEO or higher, or highly elliptical orbits or especially geo(stationary) or cislunar, then those orbits begin to decrease dramatically for STP.”

STP does receive a large launch vehicle every four years to launch payloads into geostationary orbit, he added.

Officials said the DoD helped to seed the small satellite launch industry through the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI). The initiative paid for launches by startup companies that included Rocket Lab, Astra Space, and Virgin Orbit. Although not all launches succeeded, many did place satellites into orbit.

Shea said plans to decommission ISS in 2030 pose a “pretty existential” threat to the STP program. Officials are working closely with companies that are planning to build private space stations later this decade.

Col. Eric B. Nelson, director of the Pentagon’s Capability Delivery Directorate, said STP has three launches scheduled this year, including one conducted in March. There will be as many as four launches scheduled in 2024.

There are presently 60 experiments from government, private industry, and academia being considered for launch, Shea said. STP launches 10 to 15 experiments annually.

Shea said trends he is seeing in proposals include: miniaturization of payloads; optical (laser) communications, especially between spacecraft; and cislunar space. Officials are trying to work out how to get more experiments into cislunar space, where there are limited launches.

Robertson said he is seeing a growing number of proposals involving software-specific experiments and autonomous systems.

Roth said that a satellite refueling mission using a prototype fuel tanker is currently under development. Officials are currently working through the budget of the mission.

Douglas Messier

Veteran journalist and editor.