L3Harris, which has won Missile Defense Agency and Space Development Agency contracts within the last year to produce missile-tracking satellites, outlines a “threat elimination chain” in this graphic.

COLORADO SPRINGS — The deployment of sensor satellites in low Earth orbit to fill blind spots in the U.S. missile defense system is finally moving from the drawing board to actual space hardware. 

U.S. defense officials worry that China and Russia are developing increasingly sophisticated hypersonic missiles that launch into  space and glide back into the atmosphere on erratic trajectories.

“I would like to have overhead sensors that see everything, characterize everything that goes on on this planet from a missile perspective, all the time, everywhere,” Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten said at an industry conference earlier this month.

The Pentagon concluded that only sensors in low orbits can spot these threats accurately and early enough to shoot down. Existing early warning satellites in geostationary orbit have infrared sensors that detect the heat signatures of ballistic missile launches but hypersonic weapons are dimmer and harder to see from such high altitudes.  

The Defense Department’s 2019 Missile Defense Review called for investments in space sensors in low Earth orbit Projects are under way at the Space Development Agency (SDA) and the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).  

SDA is developing a constellation of satellites with wide-field-of-view sensors designed to work together in a network to detect and track targets. 

MDA is pursuing another set of sensors under the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) program. These are satellites with medium-field-of-view sensors that will identify the precise location of an incoming missile and send that data to a command center so an interceptor can be launched. 

SDA and MDA said a combination of wide- and medium-field-of-view sensors is needed to track and maintain custody of hypersonic missiles. The plan is for both agencies’ satellites to be part of DoD’s larger sensor infrastructure.

Several companies have already won MDA and SDA contracts for satellites, sensors and systems integration. Winners so far include  Parsons, L3Harris, Northrop Grumman, and SpaceX. 

Parsons in June won a $2.2 billion, seven-year contract from MDA for engineering, technical analysis and modeling of layered missile defense systems. 

“One of the big efforts there is going to be the hypersonic layer,” Parsons CEO Carey Smith told SpaceNews. 

The company will help MDA figure out “how do you detect and track hypersonics in space, and not just hypersonics but also advanced cruise missiles,” said Smith.

This is a growing priority for DoD, she said. “There’s nothing that exists right now” to counter the threat of hypersonic weapons. DoD wants a space layer in LEO to detect and track both hypersonics and advanced cruise missiles, Smith added. “We are supporting MDA in basically architecting what that would look like.”

L3Harris has contracts for hypersonic tracking satellites with both SDA and MDA.  In October, it won a $193.5 million SDAcontract to produce four missile-tracking satellites with wide-field-of-view sensors. In January, MDA awarded L3Harris a $121 million contract to produce a medium-field-of-view sensor satellite for the HBTSS program.

Edward Zoiss, president of L3Harris Space and Airborne Systems, said the company is adapting infrared sensing technologies developed for weather satellites. “We had to create the algorithms and the necessary techniques to migrate weather sensors and hardware over to the missile defense mission,” Zoiss said. 

A second HBTSS satellite is being developed by Northrop Grumman, which won a $155 million contract from MDA. 

Hypersonic missiles are worrisome because of their speed and maneuverability, said Mike Ciffone, Northrop Grumman’s director of overhead persistent infrared and geospatial systems.

“One of things that’s unique with these maneuverable threats is they’re not like the traditional ballistic threats so they present challenges to our missile defense capabilities.”

Both L3Harris and Northrop Grumman have to deliver satellites to MDA by 2023. 

SpaceX, meanwhile, is producing four wide- field-of-view missile- tracking satellites for SDA under a $149 million contract awarded in October.

SDA plans to launch L3Harris’ and SpaceX’s eight sensor satellites in 2023 for a demonstration of its tracking layer. MDA has not announced a target launch date for the HBTSS satellites. 

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...