Lockheed Martin Corp. recently completed a series of tests on the Multiple Kill Vehicles (MKV) missile interceptor program intended to ensure that the system’s hardware does not overheat during use.

The MKV involves a lot of hardware packed tightly into a small package, making thermal protection critical, said Richard Reginato, MKV program director for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. of Sunnyvale, Calif.

The focus of the thermal testing was on the kill vehicles’ propulsion systems, Reginato said. Program officials worked to insulate the kill vehicle s’ divert and attitude control systems to ensure they did not overheat and malfunction, he said.

Lockheed Martin won a $760 million contract for the MKV program in January 2004.

The MKV includes a so-called mother ship that is about 110 centimeters by 65 centimeters and houses a batch of tiny kill vehicles, the exact number of which is classified, Reginato said. Each kill vehicle is about the size of two cans of paint stacked on top of each other, Reginato said.

The MKV is designed to be launched by a booster rocket following the detection of an ICBM launch. The mother ship deploys the kill vehicles and coordinates their use against the incoming target, Reginato said. The mother ship deploys the kill vehicles by ejecting them into space with a system similar to an airbag in an automobile, he said.

The mother ship includes communications links to both the kill vehicles and missile defense operators on the ground, while the kill vehicles include links only to the mother ship, Reginato said. This helps reduce the weight of the kill vehicles, which is a key cost driver of the program, he said.

The MKV’s “shotgun” approach helps address one of the most difficult aspects of missile defense: discrimination of the ICBM’s warhead from decoys, Reginato said. Discrimination can be extremely challenging for the sensors in the missile defense architecture, but the MKV takes another approach to that task by destroying anything near the target that could potentially be the warhead, Reginato said.

While the MKV may be able to address the discrimination issue, it will not be easy, said Philip Coyle, a former top weapons tester at the Pentagon who currently serves as a senior advise r to the Center for Defense Information, a think tank here. The kill vehicles will need seekers capable of homing in on the warheads or decoys in space, which is challenging to build in a small package, Coyle said.

The seekers and onboard propulsion systems on the kill vehicles need to be particularly capable if they hope to intercept targets that spread their decoys around a wide area, Coyle said.

Passage of the thermal testing clears the way for work on the MKV program to continue towards a hover demonstration that is expected to be conducted about two years from now at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Reginato said. During that testing, a single kill vehicle will fly in a hover chamber and track a simulated target before falling down into a safety net, he said.

Other important work taking place on the program includes the development of battle-management software for the MKV mother ship, Reginato said. Lockheed Martin is taking advantage of software developed for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system as it works on the software that will control the tiny kill vehicles, he said.

Work on the MKV program is intended to lead to a series of six flight tests that will start in 2009 and run through 2011, Reginato said. Those tests will feature increasing sophistication and functionality of the mother ship, he said.

The MKV is currently planned to ride on the booster rockets designed for the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System. However, sources say that those plans could change.

In one scenario under discussion within the Missile Defense Agency, the MKV mother ship would be deployed by the Kinetic Energy Interceptor rocket being developed by Northrop Grumman Mission Systems of Fair Lakes, Va.

The Kinetic Energy Interceptor currently is intended to knock down missiles in their boost or ascent phase of flight, but the Missile Defense Agency is weighing the option of pursuing midcourse interceptors with that rocket. Those interceptors would possibly use the MKV as the payload, the sources said. This could lead to using the Kinetic Energy Interceptor booster for some or all of the flight tests scheduled between 2009-2011, the sources said.

The Missile Defense Agency also is looking at the possibility of adapting the MKV system for use as a space-based missile interceptor at some point in the next decade, the sources said. Any discussion of using MKV as a space-based system is still preliminary. The Pentagon has yet to make a formal commitment to deploy space-based interceptors, though it may begin experimenting in that area later this decade.