SMC considers MEO satellites for missile tracking

Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Missile Warning Satellite, USAF Image

WASHINGTON: The Space Force will make the decision to move from digital design to in-orbit testing of new prototype missile tracking satellites – stationed in non-traditional medium earth orbit (MEO) – at the end of 2022, according to reports. managers of the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC).

The first step is to assess the “digital prototypes” being developed by Raytheon and Boeing’s Millennium Space Technologies to see if companies should take the next steps to build hardware and software to actually launch, several executives told us. SMC in conversations earlier this week.

“We take these [digital design] prototypes through what’s called a critical design review, and it’s a known stage in the acquisition lifecycle, at which point we have a certain level of design maturity and understanding, ”the Colonel Brian Denaro, Materiel / Division Chief. for the strategic systems division of SMC’s Space Development Corps, said. “At this point, we could theoretically turn to building real flight hardware, as we will have the maturity of this design which we are confident can be launched into orbit. “

Denaro’s division is responsible for the Missile Track Custody Prototype (TCD) program, which is currently focused on developing a digital design for potential future satellites instead of a traditional prototyping effort. As such, it is a flagship of SMC’s efforts to move towards digital design and digital engineering to accelerate its sourcing efforts.

The two companies are under contract to each deliver by November 2022 a “high fidelity digital model” to allow the Space Force to undertake, in effect, early orbital tests on the ground, explained an official of the SMC. (SMC announced pricing on May 27, but provided few details.) The SMC official said the 18-month contracts were signed in April and May: Raytheon receiving $ 29 million and Millennium Space 28.1 million dollars, the official said.

If a decision is made to move to a second phase of the effort, the contract includes options for Space Force to purchase up to three satellites from each to test them in orbit – while potentially providing early capability to fighters.

The program is also new in its consideration of an MEO orbit – the area of ​​space between the edge of LEO 2,000 kilometers above Earth and the edge of GEO, which begins at 35,786 kilometers.

The Space Force is actively considering whether its future missile warning and tracking satellites should be stationed over a wider orbit range than in the past, as it seeks to improve both the accuracy and resiliency of the network, has declared the head of SMC. Indeed, Lieutenant General John Thompson, head of the SMC, told the Mitchell Institute last June that “all orbital regimes are on the table” going forward.

DoD’s current missile warning constellation, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), uses GEO, as well as polar orbits. Likewise, its replacement, the new generation persistent infrared system (Next-Gen OPIR). The OPIR Next-Gen program currently has a contract for its first iteration, confusingly called Block 0, which is made up of three GEO satellites being built by Lockheed Martin and two polar orbiting LEO satellites under construction. construction by Northrop Grumman. SMC currently plans to launch the first Next-Gen OPIR GEO satellite (called NGG for Next Generation Geosynchronous) in 2025 or 2026, and put the entire constellation into orbit by 2029.

These satellites are optimized for nuclear missile warning because they can “see” the luminous glow of a missile launch anywhere on the globe at any time. “The goal… is to find the shiny and shiny object and attribute where it came from,” one SMC technical expert told us.

And then this warning data is, in general, transmitted to a missile network on the ground of the Antimissile Defense Agency. monitoring radar, like the improved Cobra Dane in Alaska. But this missile warning / tracking setup is challenged by hypersonic cruise missiles, which don’t give off a launch rocket as bright as GEO satellites can detect and fly too low to be seen by many ground-based radars.

air force photo

Cobra Dane Missile Defense and Space Tracking Radar in Alaska

Therefore, the DoD space development agency pursues a “tracking layer,” a constellation of hundreds of LEO satellites (known as the p-LEO constellation), as part of its national defense space architecture in the aim to follow the opposing hypersonic cruise missiles. The downside of a p-LEO constellation is that hypersonic missiles fly very fast, and each LEO satellite is only on the horizon for a very short period (about seven to 10 minutes), so a lot of satellites are necessary not to lose the target, said the expert of the SMC.

MEO satellites therefore occupy a sort of ideal area for missile tracking, the expert said. “It’s an orbit closer to Earth [than GEO]”And“ these MEO satellites stay longer so you can use fewer satellites in MEO compared to LEO. ”

SMC officials say it makes no sense that in the end, US missile warning and tracking satellites end up populating all three orbits – a design that would provide much better resilience against attack. But for the moment, everything is still in the air.

“What we are looking at from an interagency perspective is the best way forward. You asked what we were going to do in the future: we don’t know yet, ”said the expert from SMC. “And it’s good not to know,” said the expert from SMC, noting that the center works closely with SDA and MDA. The goal is to “develop an architecture that gives us the most efficient and truly affordable integration – and we haven’t talked much about it, but affordable – missile warning and monitoring architecture.

Indeed, at least one of TCD’s two subcontractors, Millennium Space, strives to cover these various eventualities. Jason Kim, the company’s vice president of strategic planning, says his design will work just as well in any orbit. Noting that one of the factors SMC looks for in TCD designs is “flexibility,” Kim told me in an interview.

“We designed our system to provide flexibility to our customers… although it is an MEO program, it could easily fly in LEO or GEO,” he said.

Kim added that Millennium Space has already digitally tested its model using data from SBIRS and “high fidelity simulations” which have shown that it “can deliver higher performance, but at a more affordable and significantly lower cost.”

“The ability to tackle future threats ranging from cruise and ballistics to fast-flying hypersonic requires a diverse and resilient missile warning / runway guard architecture,” said Paul Meyer, vice president by Space & C2 Systems for Raytheon Intelligence & Space (RI&S). “And operating in mid-earth orbit is a critical layer of that architecture.”

Raytheon’s press release explained that the TCD program “has moved from Block 1 GEO Persistent Infrared to the next generation. “