WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is moving forward with plans to procure 27 missile-defense satellites for a medium Earth orbit constellation — using an acquisition process that mirrors the model adopted by the Space Development Agency for the military’s low Earth orbit architecture.

“We are acquiring our architecture through spiral development, with new capabilities being placed on orbit every two to three years,” said Col. Heather Bogstie, senior materiel leader for missile warning, tracking and defense at the Space Systems Command.

The first nine satellites of a medium Earth orbit (MEO) missile-warning and missile-tracking constellation, called Epoch 1, are projected to launch in 2027. A second procurement of 18 satellites, called Epoch 2, will follow two to three years later, Bogstie said Oct. 19 at the MilSat Symposium in Mountain View, California.

“We are building a multi-layered sensor satellite network  in both higher and lower MEO orbits, designed to sense a variety of missile threats, including the very fast, very dim hypersonic glide vehicles,” she said. 

Two vendors already were selected to supply Epoch 1 satellites: Millennium Space Systems and Raytheon. Both companies won contracts in 2021 to design digital models of MEO tracking satellites. A third vendor, L3Harris Technologies, in June 2023 got a contract to design a third digital prototype. 

Credit: Space Systems Command

Only Millennium Space Systems and Raytheon received development contracts with options to each produce up to three spacecraft for in-orbit demonstrations planned for late 2026. 

Bogstie said “continued and open competition is a central tenet to our acquisition strategy.”

“If you’re not a participant in Epoch 1, there’s no need to worry. There’s a lot more to do,” she added. 

“This is different from traditional satellite development programs because it allows us to insert the latest technology and relevant timelines to defeat the latest threats,” Bogstie said. 

“We intend to maintain a competitive contracting environment throughout our entire program. This means full and open competitions, releasing RFPs [requests for proposals] for each spiral of capability which we call Epochs, and centering on fixed price contracts.”

“This will allow us to increase the pool of vendors and deliver our system at an affordable price,” Bogstie insisted. “Every three years we will deliver several planes of satellites to build out or enhance our constellation.”

A draft request for proposals is scheduled to go out in early 2024 for Epoch 2 satellites and a final RFP later in the year. 

L3Harris eyes Epoch 2

L3Harris has won a contract to only develop a digital prototype, but is positioning to compete for an Epoch 2 satellite production contract, said Geoff Adams, the company’s senior mission architect for missile defense.

“If our digital design satisfies the Space Systems Command, we would then see that as a positive signal to compete for Epoch 2, but we haven’t made a decision yet on whether to compete,” Adams told reporters Oct. 26. “It depends on the business case as we look into the future.”

The Space Development Agency last year ordered missile-tracking satellites from L3Harris and Northrop Grumman for the LEO layer, at about $47 million per satellite. Adams said he could not comment on the estimated prices for MEO satellites. Neither Raytheon nor Millennium Space have disclosed any cost numbers for their MEO satellites. 

“Those will be considerations for the business case,” Adams said. “I can’t speculate on what the price point will be or what point we feel comfortable at.” 

L3Harris is expanding its missile-defense sensor and spacecraft production facilities in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and in Palm Bay, Florida, he said. “We’re paying for that expansion, so we believe that this  market is robust, and the need is not going to go away.”

Following SDA model

The strategy of buying MEO satellites through fixed-price contracts from multiple vendors emulates the Space Development Agency’s playbook.

SDA is ordering satellites from several manufacturers and requires them to make their spacecraft interoperable via optical links that adhere to common standards. The MEO satellites will be interoperable with the LEO layer.

The addition of a MEO layer “bolsters low-latitude coverage and track custody,” a top priority for the Pentagon amid concerns over adversaries’ advances in hypersonic and ballistic missiles.  Officials said MEO satellites provide advantages over sensors in both lower orbits and geostationary orbits for persistent wide-area coverage. There is currently a Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellation of missile-warning satellites operating in geosynchronous and highly elliptical orbits.

The Space Force in its 2024 budget requested about $500 million for MEO missile-defense satellites, and projects to spend $3.5 billion through fiscal year 2028.

Technologies needed for MEO sats

The Space Force is seeking tech improvements for MEO satellites, such as focal plane arrays that are easier to manufacture, more resistant to attack and more sensitive to fast hypersonic missiles, said Bogstie. 

Other items on the Space Force wish list include constellation management and tasking systems that automate operations, said Bogstie. “We need world-class algorithms to correlate and fuse warning and track data from hundreds of spacecraft and ground sensors.”

Like the LEO satellites acquired by SDA, the MEO version also will have optical crosslinks to move data “in plane, across planes and between orbits,” she said. “We need flight-qualified onboard processing systems to rapidly process terabytes of raw data into missile tracks.”

‘Pivoting’ from geostationary architecture 

The MEO satellites are another example of how the Space Force is buying new systems, said Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.

Since taking over as the Space Force’s senior procurement executive, Calvelli has directed changes in satellite programs — moving away from traditional missile-warning geostationary platforms that take years to develop to more agile networks of small satellites that are incrementally upgraded.

“We’re pivoting from the legacy missile warning architecture, which is a few larger satellites in geosynchronous and highly elliptical orbits, to a significantly more proliferated resilient architecture that even adds new capabilities to actually track missiles,” Calvelli said Oct. 19 at a Professional Services Council event.

“Today we just warn. In the future we need to be able to track,” Calvelli said. 

The Space Force needs to take “available technologies off the shelf and use them,” said Calvellli. “When we create our own technology, we end up down this path of cost-plus contracts because it’s too high of a risk, and we end up down these paths of seven to 10-year development cycles.”

The Space Development agency is “charting a path forward,” said Calvelli. “We’ve got successive string of acquisitions that can onramp technology, and I think that’s gonna be very healthy for the country, very healthy for the industry.”

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...