WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force awarded L3Harris Technologies a $29 million contract to design a sensor for the service’s planned Resilient Missile Warning and Tracking satellite constellation.

Millennium Space Systems and Raytheon Technologies are already on contract to develop sensor prototypes for the satellites, which will reside in medium Earth orbit — between 1,200 miles and 22,000 miles above the planet. According to the program’s senior materiel leader, selecting L3Harris to design a third sensor as part of the program’s first phase, or “Epoch,” broadens the Space Force’s industry team, giving the service more options as the constellation grows.

“Adding a third vendor reduces risk and non-recurring engineering not only for Epoch 1, but for future Epochs as well,” Col. Heather Bogstie said in a June 5 statement. “Having another payload option opens the trade space and allows us to take advantage of all industry has to offer as we deliver high-quality capability to the warfighter.”

The program is one component of the Space Force’s plan to strengthen its missile-warning and -tracking capabilities against growing threats from China and Russia by launching satellites to medium and low Earth orbit, or up to 1,200 miles above the planet.

Today, missile warning spacecraft mostly reside in geosynchronous orbit, about 22,000 miles away. Satellites located at medium Earth orbit — between the low and geosynchronous Earth orbits — can observe large areas without requiring the same level of complexity from sensors positioned farther from the planet.

The first spacecraft are slated to launch in 2026, and the Space Force expects to have four medium-Earth orbit satellites on orbit by 2028 with a goal of fielding technology upgrades on a three-year cycle.

The service requested $538 million for medium-Earth orbit tracking satellites in fiscal 2024 to support Epoch 1. According to budget documents, the Space Force expects it will need $3.5 billion for the effort from FY24 through FY28.

The budget documents indicate the service plans to buy six satellites from Millennium, a Boeing subsidiary, and three from Raytheon for the program’s first phase. According to the June 5 news release, the service may buy up to three L3Harris satellites in Epoch 1.

Col. Brian Denaro, Space Systems Command’s program executive officer for space sensing, told C4ISRNET in April the service will review each company’s final designs this fall, and at that point will determine whether to add a third sensor to the mix for Epoch 1.

He noted the Space Force hasn’t solidified how many satellites it will include in Epoch 1, partly because it’s still evaluating options.

“It really depends on what altitude they’re at, what technology you have, the size of their sensor,” he said. “I would say that each vendor comes in with a different way to solve the problem, which creates an interesting opportunity for us to look at all the trades that go across those various solutions.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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