SMC Eyes MEO Sats For Missile Tracking

Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellite, USAF image

By Theresa Hitchens,
Published by Breaking Defense, 1 July 2021

Space Force is actively considering whether its future missile warning and tracking satellites should be stationed in a wider range of orbits than in the past to improve the network’s accuracy and resiliency, an SMC official says.

WASHINGTON: The Space Force will make a decision whether to move from a digital design into on-orbit testing of new missile tracking satellite prototypes — stationed in nontraditional Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) — in late 2022, say officials at Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC).J

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

“We’re taking these [digital design] prototypes through what’s called a critical design review, and that’s a known milestone in the acquisition lifecycle, at which point we have a certain level of maturity in, and understanding of, the design,” Col. Brian Denaro, senior materiel leader/division chief for the Strategic Systems Division at SMC’s Space Development Corps, said. “At that point, we could theoretically pivot to building real flight hardware, because we’ll have the maturity of that design that we’re confident … can be launched into orbit.”

Denaro’s division is responsible for the Missile Track Custody Prototype (TCD) program, which is focused at the moment on development of a digital design for potential future satellites instead of a traditional prototyping effort. As such, it is a flagship in SMC’s effort to move toward digital design and digital engineering to help speed its procurement 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 testing on the ground, an SMC official elaborated. (SMC announced the awards May 27, but provided few details.) The SMC official said the 18-month contracts were signed in April and May: with Raytheon receiving $29 million and Millennium Space receiving $28.1 million, the official said.

If a decision is made to go onto a second phase of the effort, the contract has options for Space Force to buy up to three satellites from each to test on orbit — while possibly provide early capability for warfighters.

The program also is novel in its consideration of a MEO orbit — the area of space between between the edge of LEO at 2,000 kilometers above the 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 in a wider range of orbits than in the past as it looks to improve both the accuracy and resiliency of the network, the SMC official said. Indeed, Lt. Gen. John Thompson, SMC head, told the Mitchell Institute last June that: “all orbital regimes are on the table” in future.

DoD’s current missile warning constellation, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), uses GEO, as well as polar orbits. Likewise, its replacement, the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared System (Next-Gen OPIR).  The Next-Gen OPIR program currently has contracted for its first iteration, confusingly called Block 0, that is composed of three satellites in GEO being built by Lockheed Martin, and two satellites in LEO polar orbits, being built by Northrop Grumman. SMC at the moment plans to launch the first Next-Gen OPIR GEO satellite (called NGG for Next Generation Geosynchronous) in 2025 or 2026, and to have the entire constellation on orbit by 2029.

Those satellites are optimized for nuclear missile warning, as they can ‘see’ the bright flare of a missile launch anywhere on the globe at anytime. “The purpose … is finding the bright shiny object and attributing where it came from,” an SMC technical expert told us.

And then that warning data is, in general, passed to a network of Missile Defense Agency ground-based missile tracking radar, such as the upgraded Cobra Dane in Alaska. But that missile warning/tracking configuration is challenged by hypersonic cruise missiles, which don’t give off such a bright launch flare for GEO sats to detect, and fly too low to be seen by many ground-based radar.

Therefore, DoD’s Space Development Agency is pursuing a ‘Tracking Layer,’a constellation of hundreds of LEO satellites (known as a p-LEO constellation), as part of its National Defense Space Architecture with the aim of tracking adversary hypersonic cruise missiles. The downside of a p-LEO constellation is that hypersonic missiles fly really fast, and each satellite in LEO is only over the horizon for a very short period of time (some seven to 10 minutes), so a lot satellites are needed in order to not lose the target, the SMC expert said.

MEO sats therefore occupy a kind of sweet spot for missile tracking, the expert said. “It’s an orbit that’s closer to the Earth [than GEO],” and “those MEO satellites are dwelling for a longer period of time so you can use fewer satellites in MEO versus LEO.”

SMC officials say it is not beyond the pale that, in the end, US missile warning and tracking satellites wind up populating all three orbits — a design that would provide much better resiliency against attack. But for the moment, everything is still up in the air.

“What we are looking at from an interagency perspective is the best way, moving forward. You asked about what we’re going to do in the future: we don’t know yet,” the SMC expert said. “And that’s OK not to know,” the SMC expert said, stressing the center is working closely with SDA and MDA. The goal is to “develop an architecture that gives us the most capable integrated, and really affordable — and we haven’t talked a lot about that but affordable — missile warning and missile tracking architecture.”

Indeed, at least one of the two TCD contractors, Millennium Space Systems, is working to cover those different contingencies. Jason Kim, the company’s CEO, says its design will work just as well in any orbit. Noting that one of the factors SMC is looking for in TCD designs is “flexibility,” Kim told me in an interview.

“We’ve designed our system to give our customers flexibility … while this is a MEO program, it could easily fly in LEO or GEO,” he said.

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

“The ability to combat future threats that span from cruise and ballistic to fast-flying hypersonics requires a diverse, resilient missile warning/track custody architecture,” said Paul Meyer, vice president of Space & C2 Systems for Raytheon Intelligence & Space (RI&S). “And operating in Medium Earth Orbit is a critical layer in that architecture.”

Raytheon’s press release explained that the TCD program “transitioned from Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared GEO Block 1. The RI&S team completed a Block 1 study Mission Payload preliminary design review in September 2020, and will build on that design for the MTCD mission payload CDR.”

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