WASHINGTON – The Pentagon could get far more bang for its missile-defense buck if all the sensor satellites located in different orbits could talk to each other and share data via optical links, according to a proposal floated by Lockheed Martin to create a multi-orbit data transport network in space.

Data collected from every orbit is needed to defend against advanced ballistic and hypersonic missiles, said Eric Brown, senior director of military space mission strategy at Lockheed Martin.

“You can imagine a chain all the way from early warning through intercept without ever having to go to the ground. That’s kind of the vision that we have, but that requires connecting all the various orbital regimes,” he told SpaceNews.

DoD is spending billions of dollars on missile-warning space sensors located in geostationary (GEO) and polar orbits, but there are no plans to connect them with new constellations that DoD plans to field in low Earth orbit (LEO) and medium Earth orbit (MEO), Brown said. 

In DoD the term “data transport layer” is associated with the LEO constellation planned by the Space Development Agency. To defend the U.S. and allies from newer types of hypersonic missiles developed by China and Russia, SDA designed an architecture of low-orbiting sensor satellites that would identify and track these threats. The tracking satellites would determine the location of an incoming hypersonic missile, for example, and pass that information to a constellation of data-relay satellites – known as the transport layer – that the agency also plans to field in LEO

The location data of the incoming missile would move through space via the transport layer and then downlinked to radar and weapon systems on the ground or at sea so they can try to intercept the incoming missile. 

Low-orbiting tracking satellites are needed, said SDA, because heat-seeking sensors in GEO would not be able to detect low-flying hypersonic missiles, as the heat signature dissipates when the target flies lower in the atmosphere.

Lockheed Martin is one of the prime contractors selected to build SDA’s transport layer and also is the prime contractor for the Space Force’s new geostationary missile-warning satellites so “we are eager to see that be successful,” said Brown. “But SDA’s layer doesn’t solve the data transport needs at medium Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit, and the real power of deterrence is when you connect all of the various assets.”

The Space Force is looking to deploy missile-warning satellites in medium Earth orbit (MEO) to add another layer of defense. 

The ability to use data from multiple assets for missile defense data, known as “tip and cue,” means data is passed from one asset to another to keep awareness of a target.

For Lockheed Martin’s concept to work, satellites would need optical crosslinks. SDA requires all its transport and tracking satellites to have laser communications terminals. But GEO satellites do not, so they send missile warning data directly to the ground. 

“A future GEO missile warning system would need optical links,” said Brown. “We are exploring these options and are working with customers to evaluate paths” to incorporate planned satellites into a space data transport architecture, he said.

MEO layer could be GPS

To fill the gap in medium Earth orbit until new satellites are fielded, Lockheed Martin is proposing adding data-relay payloads and optical crosslinks to MEO-based GPS satellites, which also are made by the company. 

Another option is to partner with a commercial company that offers data transport services in MEO, Brown said. “There are multiple commercial operators that have a MEO capability.”

The SDA transport layer is an important “first step,” said Brown. “But the recognition is that it’s not going to be sufficient and we want to be able to bring all those other assets.”

Every orbit has benefits and drawbacks, he said, “so relying on any one of them independently becomes problematic.”

Brown said the data transport network could be applied to other use cases besides missile defense, such as the distribution of intelligence and battle management data. He said the company has conducted “extensive modeling, simulation and analysis of the entire transport tapestry construct – which includes government and other industry partners’ capabilities – to help bring multi-orbital communications to life.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...