WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency announced Jan. 16 it selected  L3Harris, Lockheed Martin and Sierra Space to build and operate 54 satellites equipped with infrared sensors capable of tracking hypersonic missiles in all phases of flight.

The satellites will be part of SDA’s Tranche 2 Tracking Layer, a network of satellites in low orbit 1,000 kilometers above Earth. 

The three agreements are worth about $2.5 billion. Each company will produce and operate 18 satellites — the contract awarded to L3Harris is worth $919 million, Lockheed Martin’s is $890 million and Sierra Space’s is $740 million. The contracts include incentives for on-time delivery.

L3Harris and Lockheed Martin have previously won multiple contracts for other portions of SDA’s constellation. This is Sierra Space’s first contract with SDA and the company’s first major deal to build satellites for the U.S. military. 

Sierra Space is best known for its Dream Chaser vehicle, designed to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. It has built a handful of small satellites for the U.S. government, including an experimental spacecraft for the Air Force Research Laboratory. Sierra Space said SDA’s satellites will be built at the company’s facilities in Colorado.

“We’re pleased to welcome Sierra Space, a new entrant as a prime vendor on team SDA, as we continue working with L3Harris and Lockheed Martin on Tranche 2,” said Derek Tournear, SDA director. 

Nine bids were received for the Tracking Layer Tranche 2 program. “The marketplace is responding to the demand signals for our spiral development model,” Tournear said. 

Lockheed Martin said its Tranche 2 satellites will use Terran Orbital buses and infrared missile-tracking payloads provided by General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems. 

Geost, a supplier of sensors for military satellites, was selected by Sierra Space to provide 18 infrared payloads for SDA’s satellites — 16 Mercury missile warning and missile tracking payloads and two Phoenix fire control payloads.

Launch projected in 2027

SDA, a U.S. Space Force organization, is building a layered network of satellites known as the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. It includes a Transport Layer of interconnected communications satellites that will transmit data collected by the Tracking Layer of sensor satellites.

The 54 satellites in the Tracking Layer Tranche 2 — projected to launch in 2027 — would account for about half the satellites needed to complete the global architecture of about 100 satellites envisioned by SDA. 

Each vendor will provide 16 satellites equipped with wide-field-of-view infrared sensors, and two satellites with more sophisticated infrared sensors that can generate “fire control-quality tracks,” said SDA. Fire control data has to be precise enough to guide an interceptor weapon to shoot down the incoming missile. 

“The Tracking Layer is focused on delivering a global constellation of infrared missile warning and missile tracking satellites that integrate with the Transport Layer’s low-latency meshed communication network, enabling advanced missile tracking from proliferated low-Earth orbit,” SDA said in a statement. 

SDA cautioned that the procurement of the new Tracking Layer satellites are contingent on Congress passing a 2024 defense budget. “While the kickoff and early execution of these awards will be accomplished under a continuing resolution, planned execution would be disrupted if a full defense budget is not passed before the end of March,” the agency said.

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...