The Space Development Agency (SDA) awarded Ball Aerospace [BLL] a contract to build 10 satellites and accompanying ground systems to serve as the experimental testbed (NExT) of the National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA). The contract announced Tuesday is worth up to $176 million and the satellites are set to fly beginning in 2024.

NExT is not part of the NDSA Tranche architecture, but will demonstrate low-latency data transport and beyond line-of-sight command and control. NExT will experiment with the infrastructure established by the Tranche 1 Transport Layer (T1TL) to field and connect additional space vehicles with different mission payload configurations. According to the program solicitation, the satellites will include optical communications terminals.

SDA said the experimental testbed will be used to demonstrate the utility of “emerging mission partner payloads” before they are potentially incorporated in future tranches of the NDSA. SDA Director Derek Tournear commented that NExT will advance future tranches of the NDSA.

Ball Aerospace is the prime contractor on the project and Ball will integrate government-furnished payloads and operate the NExT satellites from the company’s facilities in Colorado.

“Ball Aerospace is leveraging our heritage and proven experience of assembly, integration and test of complex payloads while bringing together an innovative industry team to quickly deliver needed capabilities to ensure SDA mission success,” said Dave Kaufman, president, Ball Aerospace.

The National Defense Space Architecture is an ecosystem of hundreds of satellites operating in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). It will comprise seven capability layers for performing data communications, tracking hypersonic and cruise missiles, and providing enhanced battle management, navigation, ground support, and deterrence from space.