Managing data is the biggest challenge to developing a new space-based sensor layer that would help detect hypersonic weapons, the director of the Missile Defense Agency said Oct. 7.

The agency is working toward building the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor, a layer of sensors on orbit that would be capable of detecting and tracking hypersonic weapons that the nation’s current missile defense architecture was not designed to handle. The new system will be built into the Space Development Agency’s constellation of low earth orbit satellites.

For Vice Adm. Jon Hill, the director of the agency, designing the sensors for the system is a surmountable engineering issue and evolving commercial launch capabilities mean it will be easy to get the technology to space once its ready. The real challenge is “the passing of track data between different space vehicles and maintaining track and dealing with clutter.”

Hypersonic weapons are dimmer than traditional ballistic missiles, making them harder to detect. The sensors will have to be able to remove that clutter, detect the threat and then pass their data to the next LEO sensor, which will pick up the object as it travels around the globe at hypersonic speed. Allowing for that data flow from sensor to sensor is essential to the effective operation of the system.

Hill compared the complexity of that data transfer to his time in the Navy, where information had to go between moving vessels, but the data issue with satellites is magnitudes of order more difficult.

“When you put yourself on a moving body that’s moving, not at 30 knots but at a much higher speed, you know, maintaining the stability of that track, being able to pull the clutter out of it, determining how much you want to process up on orbit versus how much you want to feed down and process on the ground, then how you distribute. Do you distribute directly from the sensor? Do you control the weapon from space? Or do you take it to the ground station and do it there? There [are] different trades, and we’ll probably do it differently in a lot of different ways because that adds to the overall resilience of the system,” Hill said speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event October 7.

Finding the right answers to those questions will be a priority for the MDA as it works to works to get the system on orbit quickly.

“It’s going to be a great capability. We just need to get it up there as soon as we can and rapidly proliferate,” Hill said.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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