WASHINGTON — The U.S. Missile Defense Agency is developing an experimental network of space-based sensors that would launch aboard commercial satellites and verify whether incoming missiles have been destroyed by defensive interceptors and no longer pose a threat.

The Spacebased Kill Assessment project, though included in the MDA’s 2016 budget rollout in February, got its first feature billing during a March 19 missile-defense budget hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

Vice Adm. James D. Syring, Director, Missile Defense Agency
Vice Adm. James D. Syring, Director, Missile Defense Agency. Credit: DoD/Glenn Fawcett

“We’re actively pursuing a space-based experiment,” Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the MDA’s director, said during the hearing. “That’s very encouraging to us in terms of what it might provide with technology demonstration on and hit and kill assessment which is vitally important.”

Syring told lawmakers he would prefer to provide more information in a classified session. But budget documents provide some additional details.

The MDA is requesting $22 million next year for the Spacebased Kill Assessment experiment. Initial work on the project has been funded in part using money left over from the Precision Tracking Space System, which the MDA canceled in 2013.

The Spacebased Kill Assessment represents the MDA’s first known foray into commercially hosted payloads, whereby typically government organizations fly dedicated instruments aboard commercial satellites that provide the power, data handling and other functions. The concept has slowly gained traction within the Defense Department in recent years — albeit a bit too slowly for some in industry and Congress.

Budget documents said the experiment follows a “precedent established by a United States Air Force experiment using a commercial satellite program as the platform host for a Department of Defense payload; thus taking full advantage of a multi-billion dollar space and ground system that already exists.”

CHIRP highlighted within the SES-2 satellite. Credit: SES

The agency likely was referring to an experimental missile-warning sensor, known as the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, or CHIRP, which was launched aboard the SES-2 telecommunications satellite owned by fleet operator SES of Luxembourg. The program is widely viewed among government and industry officials as validation of the hosted payload concept.

The Spacebased Kill Assessment consists of “a network of sensors, each mated to a different satellite; and the total number of sensors and where they are placed in the network are specifically tailored for the kill assessment mission,” the MDA budget documents said.

Each sensor would weigh about 10 kilograms. John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab is developing the entire experiment.

The program appears to respond to a directive by Congress in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to develop and field improved kill assessment capability by 2020.

The first sensor would launch in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2016, and would be followed by launches in the second quarter and third quarter of 2017, budget documents show. To maintain that schedule, it is likely that the MDA has found a commercial satellite host for at least the first of the sensors.

The budget documents did not identify any host satellites, saying only that integration of the first sensors would begin in fiscal year 2016.

“Since the launch of the host satellites will not wait for hosted payloads that are delivered late, the management of the [Spacebased Kill Assessment] project focuses on the ability to meet schedule commitments,” the budget documents said.


Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.