WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force has given Millennium Space Systems the go-ahead to begin production of six satellites that will be deployed in medium Earth orbit to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles. 

The Space Systems Command announced Nov. 27 that Millennium’s proposed satellite passed a critical design review and the company will begin manufacturing hardware for delivery and launch in late 2026.

The program office has not disclosed the value of Millennium’s contract. According to budget documents, the Space Force requested $500 million in fiscal year 2024 for the medium Earth orbit (MEO) missile warning and missile tracking layer of space sensors. 

Program leader Col. Heather Bogstie said as many as nine satellites will be procured for the first portion of the constellation, known as Epoch 1. The Space Force is also evaluating concepts proposed by Raytheon and by L3Harris, but only Millennium has so far secured a production deal, cementing the company’s status as front-runner in the project.

Millennium Space, a Boeing-owned company based in El Segundo, California, specializes in small satellites. CEO Jason Kim said the company is using its line of flight-proven Altair satellite buses for the MEO satellites.  The company also is responsible for the ground systems. 

MEO provides a middle ground

MEO is a new location for the military’s missile-detecting infrared sensor satellites that to date have been deployed in geostationary orbit. The Space Force’s Space Development Agency is planning a layer of sensors in low Earth orbit. MEO satellites are at higher altitudes above 1,200 miles. It provides a middle ground between LEO and geosynchronous orbits in terms of satellite lifetime, coverage area and time delays in signals.

The Space Systems Command said it plans to acquire as many as 27 satellites for the MEO layer in order to put more eyes on missile threats, including the very fast and dim hypersonic glide vehicles. 

Lindsay Dewald, deputy program manager at Millennium Space Systems, said the company  believes its digital modeling and simulations gave it a key advantage that helped land a production order.

Using digital engineering techniques, Millennium created advanced software models of its satellite prototypes, enabling exhaustive testing of spacecraft systems and sensor performance under a wide range of scenarios — including simulated engagements with enemy missiles.

“Our digital engineering approach has really been a cornerstone of our program that’s enabled us to visualize the system and perform rapid analysis iterations,” Dewald said. In simulated scenarios using data from actual missile-warning satellites, the company was able to show its infrared sensors could successfully detect and track missiles from their MEO orbital perch.

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...