Harris weather sensors see role in missile warning constellations

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When a small asteroid exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere in December off the coast of Siberia, the event went largely unnoticed despite releasing 10 times the energy of the atomic bomb the United States dropped at World War II.

As researchers would eventually discover, Japan’s Himawari weather satellite actually witnessed December’s fireball using sensors that Harris Corp. designed for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series constellation.

“That is the type of technology that is very relevant to missile warning,” says Rob Mitrevski, vice president and general manager of Harris Environmental Solutions.

The company has a long history developing satellite weather sensors and now is looking to parlay that experience into the multibillion-dollar missile warning business.

Rob Mitrevski, vice president of Harris Environmental Solutions. Credit: Harris Corp.
Rob Mitrevski, vice president of Harris
Environmental Solutions. Credit: Harris Corp.

“We’ve been asking our U.S. government and international customers: ‘What problems can we help with?’” Mitrevski told SpaceNews. “The common theme we hear in the United States and abroad is that there is a need for missile warning capabilities.” This is not surprising since missile technology is becoming more widely available, spurring demand for space-based early warning and surveillance capabilities, he said.

Harris sees missile defense as a major business opportunity where it can combine its sensor and satellite know-how. “The thermal detection capabilities we employ in our core weather missions can also be employed in other missions,” he said.

The company’s weather payloads are used for wildfire detection, for example. Thermal detectors can identify very small and closely spaced wildfires, locate fire and smoke plumes, and detect volcanic eruptions. Harris is looking to package its sensors with low-cost satellites and offer “affordable constellations,” he said.

In the coming years, Harris — which is in the process of merging with L3 Technologies to form the sixth-largest U.S. defense contractor — could conceivably challenge incumbents Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to produce future missile warning satellites for the U.S. Air Force under a program known as next-generation Overhead Persistent Infrared, or next-gen OPIR.

Next-gen OPIR is “very capable,” said Mitrevski, but there could be ways to make lower-cost systems using smallsat with modular designs to augment next-gen OPIR.

Missile warning is one of the Pentagon’s most expensive satellite programs. The Air Force is seeking $1.4 billion for 2020, including $817 million for the development of three Block 0 geosynchronous missile-warning satellites being built by Lockheed Martin and two polar-orbiting satellites to be made by Northrop Grumman. The Air Force foresees spending more than $11 billion over the next five years to accelerate both the space and ground segments.

For competitors like Harris, the opportunity will come when the Air Force solicits bids for Block 1 of next-gen OPIR. It is still unclear when that will happen. The first Block 0 geostationary satellite will be fielded in 2025 and the first polar satellite by 2027.

“Block 1 is the long-term solution,” says Mitrevski. “We see a lot of alignment in our capability with the requirements that are coming out for the Block 1 system.”

Harris also intends to compete for future Pentagon investments in space-based missile defense sensors in low Earth orbit to detect hypersonic weapons. The Missile Defense Agency is requesting $157 million for 2020 to continue to study a space architecture for hypersonic missile defense. That work is expected to transition to the Pentagon’s newly created Space Development Agency, or SDA.

“What we hear about SDA is that they need producible, quick-to-deployment solutions using mature technology,” Mitrevski said. “We are very invested to see if we can align to some of those areas.”