Space Development Agency Pushes Forward in Next Phase for Mesh Network Space Architecture

The Space Development Agency (SDA) just released their latest request for proposals to initiate the next phase in their efforts to create an advanced satellite mesh network. The newest proposal, known as Tranche 2 Tracking Layer, comes on the coattails of Tranche 0 and Tranche 1 – all part of a larger strategy for SDA in creating a “Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture”. Tranche 0 satellites launched earlier this year, in April, and were the initial proof of concept demonstration. Tranche 1 will launch in September 2024 and add an additional 126 satellites, and Tranche 2 plans to launch an additional 100 satellites in 2026.

The continued effort and funding of SDA into creating this mesh network is another indicator in the shift of space domain from large, long development, pristine satellite systems to faster and more agile proliferated space systems. The goal is to create a constellation that cannot be crippled through the attack of a single, or select few, assets – and any assets lost could be more easily replaced on a faster timeline. The SDA Tranche effort is one of the first seen from the US government towards making this shift to pLEO (proliferated LEO) space domain systems – the likes of which we have seen previously from the commercial industry to establish services such as satellite internet.

The shift to pLEO in government and military assets will re-shape the landscape of potential cybersecurity threats to assets in space. While pLEO constellations may be more resilient when single or small numbers of satellites in the network are disabled or brought out of commission, a host of new cybersecurity risks are also brought to the surface. The mesh network requires many more point-to-point communications relays which could be intercepted, spoofed, or jammed as signals pass between many different satellites or to ground stations. We’ve seen this already from services like Viasat being interrupted through Russian efforts. Additionally, SDA states that their mesh satellites will “be equipped with on-board command-and-control data processors and autonomous navigation payloads”. With this level of on-board control, and the nature of connected mesh network assets, special steps will hopefully be taken to ensure outside threats cannot attack the entire network if allowed to gain access to a single asset.

The path forward to this new space architecture is murky and yet to be defined. This shift will also open the door for many more cybersecurity threats and methods that could take advantage of the pLEO architecture if SDA is not careful.

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