WASHINGTON — One of two teams building competing payload designs for the U.S. Space Force’s next missile warning satellites completed critical design review, clearing the way for fabrication.

The payload will be incorporated into one of the first two satellites in the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared constellation, a new space-based missile warning system being built to replace the Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS. Like the current constellation, Next Gen OPIR will be able to detect and track ballistic missiles all over the globe. The first block of the new constellation will be made up of five satellites — three in geostationary orbit and two more in highly elliptical orbits to provide polar coverage.

Lockheed Martin — the prime contractor for the three geostationary satellites — has subcontracted for two competing designs for the mission payload itself, which it will integrate with its bus. Northrop Grumman and Ball Aerospace are working together on one design, with Raytheon Technologies working on a separate effort. Each team will deliver one payload to fly on one of the first two Next Gen OPIR satellites. Lockheed Martin will then select one of the developers to build an additional payload to fly on the third geostationary satellite.

Northrop Grumman and Ball Aerospace announced that their payload had passed critical design review Aug. 5, enabling them to move forward with manufacturing and testing. The payload is due for delivery to Lockheed Martin in 2023, with the first satellite launch expected in 2025.

The Space Force declared that both payloads completed preliminary design review in May 2020.

In addition to designing one of the payloads for the geostationary satellites, Northrop Grumman is also developing the polar satellites. The Space Force awarded the company $2.4 billion in 2020 to begin design work on those two satellites.

Lockheed Martin was awarded $2.9 billion in 2018 for design work, with another $4.9 billion in 2021 to begin manufacturing.

The Space Force has already begun work on the next block of Next Gen OPIR satellites, which could be placed in medium Earth orbit rather than geostationary orbit. In May the service announced awards to Raytheon Technologies and Millennium Space Systems that will see them through payload critical design review and the delivery of digital models of the satellites. The awards were issued under the new Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC) other transaction agreement, with Raytheon Technologies receiving $29 million and Millennium Space Systems receiving $28.1 million.

Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.

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