Lockheed Martin’s plan to ‘Ignite’ space innovation

Lockheed Martin’s plan to ‘Ignite’ space innovation
Lockheed Martin’s TacSat copy

Lockheed Martin Space’s TacSat will demonstrate a 5G link to an aircraft.

SATELLITE 2023 — Defense sector behemoth Lockheed Martin Space has established a new unit, called Ignite, designed to not just foster innovation but rapidly mature new technologies in order to meet its customer’s — the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community and NASA — need for speed in acquiring new on-orbit capabilities, executive vice president Robert Lightfoot said today.

“What we’ve heard from the traditional customers is: ‘we need better technical maturity, we need to get it faster,’” he told Breaking Defense in an interview during the Satellite 2023 conference.

Launched in a small “beta version” last year, Lightfoot explained that he has now expanded the unit, pulling together four separate organizations at Lockheed Martin Space to flesh out the Ignite team. The group will be led by Bob Behnken, a former NASA astronaut who flew SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station in 2020.

“Their whole goal is to get these innovations over the ‘valley of death,’ so that we can then show the customer we’ve got maturity in the systems we come offer to them, so that they don’t have to take the risk,” Lightfoot said.

Ignite several projects underway, he noted, including continued work on the LM400 mid-sized satellite bus the company is developing for the Space Force’s new(ish) program to develop a constellation of missile warning/tracking satellites in medium Earth orbit, under a teaming arrangement with prime contractor Raytheon Intelligence & Space.

Raytheon and Boeing’s Millennium Space were contracted in May 2021 to develop digital designs of the missile warning/tracking satellites. Both firms recently were approved to move ahead with building prototypes.

Lightfoot said he hopes to get the LM400 bus launched for its own technology development purposes “before the end of the year,” following a delay caused by the failure in January of ABL Space Systems’ first launch of its commercial rocket to carry small satellite payloads.

Lockheed Martin signed a contract in April 2021 for as many as 58 launches of ABL’s RS1 rocket through 2030.

A second Ignite effort is called Pony Express 2, a follow-on to Lockheed’s Pony Express 1 pathfinder satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) to demonstrate a software-defined payload for cloud computing on orbit, radio-frequency-enabled swarming formations, and space-to-space networking.

“For Pony Express 2, we’ve got a couple of small satellites, and we’re going to prove a mesh network on orbit and the ability to change command and control between those two activities,” Lightfoot explained. “And so that’s our next one … It’s gonna happen this year as well.”

The goal for Pony Express 2 is for it to be capable of supporting 5G communications, which is also a big part of Ignite’s third ongoing tech demo called TacSat, for Tactical Satellite. Also based in LEO, TacSat is designed to enable a direct 5G downlink to an aircraft, Lightfoot said, using the company’s HiveStar cloud computing software.

TacSat will demonstrate “on-orbit processing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensing, and communications capabilities,” the company’s website explains.

HiveStar, according to the website, is designed to enable communications among mesh networks of multiple satellites, as well as “shared processing capabilities and can take advantage of sensors aboard other smart satellites to customize missions in new ways previously difficult to achieve in space.”

TacSat is leveraging technology Lockheed Martin Space is developing for the Space Development Agency’s first set of Transport Layer of data relay satellites, Lightfoot said, and in turn the company hopes to mature the downlink capability for later iterations of those SDA satellites.

SDA in July 2020 awarded Lockheed Martin and relative newcomer York Space Systems contracts to each build a set of 10 satellites for the Tranche 0 Transport Layer birds: Lockheed Martin’s contract was worth $187.5 million; York’s, $94 million. SDA intends to begin launching those satellites in March.

TacSat is still in development, with the company hoping to have it ready for launch by September, Lightfoot said, though a launch date will be dependent on finding a ride to space.

Finally, he said, Lockheed Martin Space also is innovating by changing up its longstanding business model of providing full-up systems to move towards sales of individual technologies developed by the company.

“I believe we are a tech company that gets painted with an A&D [aerospace and defense] brush, because that’s what we do most of our business, right? But we probably do as much tech as anybody,” he said.

The first customer in line is Florida-based small sat maker Terran Orbital, Lightfoot said, which is buying Lockheed Martin made solar arrays.

“Terran Orbital … is a strong partner for us,” he said.

Terran’s subsidiary Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems is providing the buses to Lockheed Martin for the SDA Transport Layer birds.