While the subject is controversial and the funding far from approved, aerospace contractors view the Pentagon’s plans to develop space-based missile interceptors a major business opportunity that could lead to the launch of dozens — if not hundreds — of satellites early in the next decade.

While the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has not yet conducted space-based interceptor tests, companies believe that their work in developing a variety of the ground-based missile defense systems intended to protect both the United States and deployed troops from incoming missiles could pave the way for the development of the new missile defense satellites.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering, MDA director, has begun speaking publicly about the agency’s hopes to begin testing space-based interceptor technology in 2008, pending congressional approval. Obering acknowledged during a March 20 speech at the 4th Annual U.S. Missile Defense Conference, which was sponsored by MDA and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, that space-based missile defense is a controversial topic, and noted the agency will await a congressional debate on the matter before moving forward.

U.S. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, has said in the past that he plans to hold hearings devoted to the topic of space-based missile interceptors and anti-satellite weapons.

Everett said in an interview last year that he planned to wait for the White House to issue a new space policy that has been in the works for several years before holding the hearings, but noted that he may have to go forward without the policy in hand if its release does not come soon.

Everett’s spokesman Mike Lewis did not return a phone call requesting comment on how much longer the congressman plans to wait for the policy before conducting hearings.

Laying ground work

MDA has begun laying the ground work for experimenting with space-based interceptors in its future year budget planning. The agency’s 2007 budget request notes that it plans to request $45 million for the space-based interceptor work in 2008, and a total of $567 million through 2011.

Space-based interceptors could help the military knock down missiles that cannot be reached by other interceptor systems due to geographical or basing limitations, according to budget justification materials submitted by MDA to Congress in early March. Space interceptors would complement, rather than replace, other interceptor systems due to the financial constraints of building enough satellites to cover the entire globe, according to the justification materials.

Obering said during his March 20 speech that he has high hopes for the utility of space interceptors. However, developing those systems will not be easy, and extensive ground testing would be needed to complement any orbital demonstrations with this technology, he said.

Gregory Canavan, a senior fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who worked on a previously canceled space-interceptor project called Brilliant Pebbles, said that most of the testing on space-interceptors could be performed on the ground.

NFIRE solution

One of the key areas that would require experiments in space is addressing the ability to differentiate between the body of an incoming missile and its fiery exhaust plume, said Canavan, who advises Obering on technology issues but said he was voicing his own opinions. MDA plans to launch the Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) in early 2007 to address that issue.

The NFIRE spacecraft was designed to feature an infrared sensor to watch missile targets during testing. The satellite also featured an additional sensor that would have flown close to a missile target during testing to take a closer look.

However, MDA’s decision to remove the additional sensor, which was mounted on a missile defense kill vehicle, could prevent MDA from getting close enough to gain the necessary information to discriminate between the missile body and the plume, Canavan said.

Congress has encouraged MDA to run a second NFIRE experiment with the kill vehicle, which would likely help address this problem, Canavan said.

Background checks

Keeping the space-based interceptors light enough to ensure affordable construction and launch also will be a key aspect of the work, Canavan said. If the interceptors can be kept to around 200 kilograms each, MDA could launch a constellation of 200 satellites into low Earth orbit aboard two heavy-lift Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle rockets, he said.

Another key aspect to deploying space-based interceptors will be miniaturizing electronics and propulsion systems, according to Doug Graham, vice president for advanced systems under Lockheed Martin Space Systems missile defense group in Sunnyvale, Calif., which is interested in competing for this work.

Lockheed Martin has addressed those issues through missile defense programs like the Patriot Advanced Capability-3, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and Multiple Kill Vehicles, Graham said in a March 22 interview.

The propulsion needed for a small satellite to close in on an incoming missile also has been demonstrated through programs like XSS-11, a spacecraft that Lockheed Martin built for the Air Force Research Laboratory. XSS-11 was launched in July to conduct experiments in space including rendezvous and inspection of objects on orbit, Graham said.

David Shingledecker, vice president for strategic systems at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems in El Segundo, Calif., said Raytheon hopes to be a player in this arena as well.

Raytheon’s work in developing the payloads for the Space Tracking and Surveillance System Block 06 missile tracking experiments, combined with building kill vehicles for ground- and sea-based missile defense efforts, as well as various ground command and control systems, makes for a strong offering across several sectors of the company, Shingledecker said in a March 17 interview in Washington.

Northrop Grumman Corp. also is beginning to prepare for a possible competition for space-based interceptors, according to a company official, who declined to be identified by name.

Northrop Grumman’s experience designing the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a developmental system intended to conduct a high-speed booster flight demonstration in 2008, would likely apply to developing a space-based system, which would require fast acceleration to close in on incoming missiles, the official said.

While MDA is likely seeking a kinetic energy method of destroying the incoming missiles, Northrop Grumman’s work leading an industry team for the Space Based Laser Integrated Flight Experiment, which was canceled in 2002, could also apply to designing satellites capable of targeting missiles from space by crashing into them, the Northrop Grumman official said.

Boeing Co., which builds the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System, the largest of the Pentagon’s missile defense efforts, also is interested in the space-interceptors business.

Charles M. Kupperman, vice president of business development for Boeing Missile Defense Systems in Arlington, Va., said the company believes that the necessary technology is ready “to make rapid progress” once the Pentagon kicks off the interceptor work. Kupperman declined to comment on technology that Boeing has worked on that may be directly applicable to space interceptors.

MDA budget constraints

While companies are looking forward to the possibility of major business coming from building an interceptor constellation, officials also note that MDA will not have an easy time fitting the program into its budget, which already is crowded with programs like the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System, Airborne Laser, Kinetic Energy Interceptor, Aegis sea-based defense and a possible constellation of Space Tracking and Surveillance System missile tracking satellites.

Other budget pressures, like continued operations in Iraq and the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, also could constrain the defense budget from initiating a major new satellite constellation, Shingledecker said.

“That’s part of what makes the future cloudy — we see lots of programs and lots of requirements, but a funding-constrained environment,” Shingledecker said.

Canavan noted that MDA already has a variety of expensive programs on its plate, but said that the cost of developing space-based interceptors, even if it proves to be as high as Air Force satellites efforts today that are far past their initial budget projections, would be far less than the $1 trillion or more that likely would be needed to clean up a U.S. region after an ICBM attack.

Weaponizing space?

Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a think tank based here, raised concern that MDA’s work on space-based interceptors is interpreted by nations around the world as a step towards weaponizing space.

Other countries believe that space-based interceptors may be used to target their satellites, and may use this as an incentive to develop their own weapons in space, Hitchens said.

The interceptors also would need to store a large amount of fuel, which could cause them to explode and scatter harmful debris in orbit if they are struck — accidentally or otherwise — by another object in space, Hitchens said.