WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency is soliciting bids to integrate a missile-warning sensor with a satellite bus and launch it to low Earth orbit by late 2021.

The June 5 solicitation is for a “tracking phenomenology experiment” to develop sensor algorithms for a future missile detection network in space. Proposals are due July 6.

The experiment is an initial step in the SDA’s plan to deploy a large constellation of low orbiting satellites in 2022 to detect and track maneuvering hypersonic missiles that the Pentagon predicts China and Russia will field in the near future.

The tracking experiment is central to the development of sensors that can accurately identify missile signals in background noise and clutter, according to SDA. “It will characterize scene backgrounds for a range of satellite viewing conditions to optimize algorithms, concepts of operations and wavebands for advanced missile detection and tracking,” said the June 5 request for proposals.

The contractor in this project will be responsible for taking a sensor payload provided by SDA, integrating it with a satellite bus and putting in on a launch vehicle.

Derek Tournear, the director of the SDA, said the missile defense phenomenology experiment will supplement two other satellites being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency under the Blackjack program.

“There will be at least three LEO OPIR [overhead persistent infrared] satellites flown,” Tournear said June 4 during a Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance webcast.

These experiments will collect data “so that we can really justify that we’ve chosen the correct bands, that we understand some of the phenomenology,” Tournear said.

In parallel to the experiment, SDA will start soliciting proposals from contractors to build the first eight satellites of the missile tracking constellation. A final request for proposals will be out by June 15, Tournear said.

Tournear said satellites in different orbits will be needed to detect and track fast-flying hypersonic missiles. SDA’s eight satellites will provide a “wide field of view” from orbit but more detailed tracking data will be provided by another “medium field of view” layer of satellites that is being designed by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency but has not yet been funded. The MDA program, known as the Hypersonic Ballistic Tracking Space Sensors, or HBTSS, would provide the so-called “fire control” data needed to be able to target an interceptor weapon to shoot down the hypersonic missile.

By 2022 or 2023, SDA plans to field an early version of a missile warning network with about 70 wide-field-of-view and medium-field-of-view satellites. “That will give us enough coverage in LEO so that we can have essentially regional persistence,” said Tournear. ‘We’ll have to determine which areas of the globe we want to focus on. That’s the first time we’ll have enough satellites up there to where we could actually fight a war with those satellites.” By 2025, “we’ll have more satellites up to where it we’ll be able to have full global coverage.”

Congress has questions

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), of the House Armed Services Committee, said DoD’s missile defense programs are likely to be a topic of discussion in the upcoming markup of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Subcommittee debate is scheduled for June 22 and the full committee markup on July 1.

During the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance webcast, Lamborn asked Tournear and MDA officials on the panel to explain why the HBTSS space sensor layer was not funded in the Pentagon’s 2021 budget.

Tournear said there were “funding constraints” in the 2021 budget. If Congress decided to add money to the program, he said, that would help close the gap between the deployment of the wide-field-of-view and the medium-field-of-view systems.

Some lawmakers have questioned why SDA is moving forward with a tracking sensor layer if there is still no plan to deploy the HBTSS system that would be needed to shoot down an enemy missile.

“You start to get into this chicken and the egg issue that we want to head off at the pass,” said Tournear. “We want to move both of them at the same time. And I would contend that one of them is not more difficult than the other, both are necessary.”

Tournear also pushed back on criticism that SDA and MDA are doing overlapping work. “We’re doing a hybrid architecture together.,” he said. Tournear noted that both agencies are under the office of undersecretary of defense for research and engineering Mike Griffin. “As far as making sure that that SDA and MDA are tied closely together, well, for one thing, we’ve got the same boss. That’s a start that helps a lot.”

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...