WASHINGTON — A new sensor payload developed by Northrop Grumman Corporation and Ball Aerospace to detect missile launches has passed a critical design review, the companies announced Aug. 5.

The payload is one of two being manufactured for the U.S. Space Force’s Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) geosynchronous satellites made by Lockheed Martin. A competing payload is being developed by Raytheon. 

Next-Gen OPIR is a planned constellation of early warning satellites that detect intercontinental and tactical ballistic missile launches.

Northrop Grumman and Ball Aerospace plan to deliver the payload to Lockheed Martin in 2023. The first Next-Gen OPIR satellite is projected to launch in 2025.

Lockheed Martin is under contract to produce three Next-Gen OPIR geosynchronous satellites, intended to supplement and eventually replace the existing Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellation of missile warning satellites. Northrop Grumman was selected by the Space Force to design and develop two polar-orbiting Next-Gen OPIR satellites.

It has not yet been decided whether the Northrop/Ball or the Raytheon payloads will fly on the three Next-Gen OPIR geosynchronous satellites. The Space Force and Lockheed Martin will make the final selection.

Raytheon and the Northrop Grumman/Ball Aerospace team also are designing sensor payloads for the two Next-Gen OPIR polar satellites being developed by Northrop Grumman.

The Space Force’s missile warning satellites are operate by Space Delta 4 at Buckley Space Force Base, Colorado. The unit operates an older constellation known as the Defense Support Program and the SBIRS satellites, as well as ground-based radars used for strategic and theater missile warning.

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...