WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency announced July 18 it selected L3Harris Technologies and Northrop Grumman to each build 14 missile-tracking satellites for a low Earth orbit constellation known as the Tracking Layer.
L3Harris won a $700 million contract and Northrop Grumman a $617 million deal for the Space Development Agency’s Tracking Layer Tranche 1.
The 28 infrared-sensing satellites will be part of a global network of eyes in the sky intended to detect and track the latest generation of ballistic and hypersonic missiles being developed by countries like Russia and China.
Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear said the 28 spacecraft will be launched in batches of seven to polar orbits about 600 miles above Earth. Each plane of seven satellites will be deployed over different locations around the globe. The first launch is projected in April 2025.
Having a constellation of infrared sensing satellites in low Earth orbit has emerged as a top priority for the Pentagon amid concerns that current defense systems might not be able to detect low-flying hypersonic missiles.
SDA’s Tracking Layer satellites should be able to see targets with greater fidelity than current DoD missile-defense satellites in geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above the equator. Existing satellites provide global missile warning and detect launches of short-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles, but they were not designed to track advanced maneuvering missiles like hypersonic glide vehicles.
SDA in 2020 ordered the first eight satellites of the Tracking Layer — known as Tranche 0 — from L3Harris and SpaceX. The first two Tranche 0 satellites are projected to launch in 2023.
SDA estimated the entire cost of the Tracking Layer Tranche 1 will be about $2.5 billion, a price tag that includes the 28 satellites as well as four launches, ground integration and support costs.
Tournear said seven proposals were received for Tracking Layer Tranche 1. The two winning bids were selected based on their schedules, technical merit and price.
Both L3Harris and Northrop Grumman won so-called “other transaction agreements” used by the Pentagon as alternatives to traditional contracts. These agreements require contractors to team with nontraditional commercial vendors. Neither L3Harris nor Northrop has yet disclosed its commercial partners for this contract.
These are the second major contracts that L3Harris and Northrop Grumman have won to date from DoD’s space agency. L3Harris got a contract for four Tracking Layer Tranche 0 satellites and Northrop Grumman won a 42-satellite deal for SDA’s broadband constellation called Transport Layer Tranche 1.
The data collected by Tracking Layer satellites would be sent via optical links to the Transport Layer so if a missile threat is detected, its location and trajectory data can be transmitted securely through space and downlinked to military command centers.
Both the Tracking and Transport Layers will be built in increments over several years, with new satellites acquired every two years. The next Tranche 2 of the Tracking Layer is expected to have 54 satellites.
“The T1 Tracking Layer effort is a critical step toward building the national defense space architecture,” Tournear said. “SDA is confident that selection of the L3 Harris and Northrop Grumman teams provides the best overall solution to accelerate delivery of a low-Earth orbit constellation with wide-field-of-view infrared sensors for a global missile warning and missile tracking capability.”