L3Harris, SpaceX win Space Development Agency contracts to build missile-warning satellites

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SDA Director Derek Tournear said SpaceX “came in with an extremely credible proposal” that leverages the Starlink assembly line

WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency awarded  $193.5 million to L3Harris and $149 million to SpaceX to build four satellites each to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles.

The contracts announced Oct. 5 are for the first eight satellites for a potentially much larger constellation of sensor satellites the Space Development Agency is calling Tracking Layer Tranche 0. 

The awards mark the first time the U.S. military has announced an order of satellites from SpaceX, which opened a factory in Seattle several years ago to produce thousands of small satellites for its Starlink broadband megaconstellation. 

Both SpaceX and L3Harris are required to deliver their satellites by September 2022, Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear told SpaceNews.

Each satellite will have a “wide field of view” overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) sensor capable of detecting and tracking advanced missile threats from low Earth orbit. The satellites will also be equipped with optical crosslinks to pass data to relay satellites. 

Tournear said the winners were selected based on technical merit and ability to deliver satellites quickly.

SpaceX’s missile-tracking satellite will be based on its Starlink bus with an OPIR sensor acquired from another supplier, Tournear said. He declined to name the payload provider and SpaceX has not disclosed subcontractors for the project.

L3Harris, according to Tournear, bid a complete satellite with the bus and payload produced in-house. 

The optical crosslinks in the Tracking Layer must be compatible with the optical links used in the Transport Layer satellites that Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems are building for the Space Development Agency under contracts awarded in August.

The Transport Layer is the backbone that moves data collected by the sensors to anywhere in the world where the U.S. military needs it. 

Tournear said SpaceX “came in with an extremely credible proposal” that leverages its Starlink assembly line. 

“The selection is on technical merit but the schedule takes top priority,” he said. “The SDA model is based on leveraging commercial technology. We have leveraged commercial tier 2 suppliers. This is an example of how we are leveraging commercial tier 1 suppliers.”

“We want to show that we can take commoditized commercial components and perform a DoD mission,” said Tournear. 

All eight satellites will be launched in 2022 for a demonstration of the Tracking Layer. The next step will be to add 28 more wide field-of-view satellites and one or two “medium field of view” satellites that will be developed by the Missile Defense Agency. The medium field-of-view sensors provide more specific target location data to cue weapons automatically. 

Under Tranche 0, a constellation of 20 Transport Layer satellites, eight wide field-of-view and two medium field-of-view OPIR Tracking Layer satellites would be deployed in two planes of 15 satellites each.

Tournear said the SDA is now reviewing bids for the “mission systems engineering and integration” contract. The winner will be responsible to tie the Transport Layer and the Tracking Layer with ground systems.