The Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency launched six satellites Wednesday designed to demonstrate the ability to track high-speed missile threats.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried the satellites, four of which support the Space Development Agency’s constellation of tracking spacecraft and two are part of the Missile Defense Agency’s Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program, or HBTSS.

The agencies, along with the Space Force, have been working together to develop a more robust network of satellites that can detect and track traditional ballistic missiles and maneuvering hypersonic weapons, which can travel at speeds above Mach 5.

The satellites will reside in low Earth orbit, or LEO, about 1,200 miles above the planet’s surface.

“Launching our tracking satellites into the same orbit with the MDA HBTSS satellites is a win for both agencies,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said in a Feb. 14 statement. “We’ll be able to look at test targets from the same orbit at the same time, so that we can see how the two sensors work together.”

The satellites represent a portion of a broader Space Force plan to strengthen its missile warning and tracking capabilities against increasing threats from China and Russia. Today, those spacecraft mostly reside in geosynchronous orbit, or GEO, about 22,000 miles above Earth. Satellites located in lower orbits like LEO can observe large areas without requiring the same level of complexity from sensors positioned further away.

The Pentagon expects to spend nearly $16 billion on these efforts through fiscal 2028, according to the Space Force’s FY24 budget request.

While the MDA and SDA sensors were developed through separate programs, future tranches of SDA spacecraft will combine the capabilities, incorporating the medium-field-of-view sensor featured on the HBTSS satellites. The HBTSS sensors are designed to track dimmer targets and send data to interceptors.

L3Harris built all four of the SDA satellites, which are part of the agency’s Tranche 0 tracking layer. The company is also on contract to build missile tracking satellites for the next two capability tranches, which will feature improved sensor technology.

MDA also tapped L3Harris to build one of its HBTSS satellites, selecting Northrop Grumman to develop the second.

For L3Harris, traditionally a satellite payload provider, the launch represents its foray into leading a satellite development program as a prime contractor, according to Kelle Wendling, president of the company’s space systems business.

“It’s been a very interesting path for us as a payload provider moving into that prime role,” Wendling told C4ISRNET in an interview.

Having a role in HBTSS as well as the first three tranches of SDA’s missile tracking constellation means the company can find ways to both streamline its manufacturing processes and improve its sensor design over time, according to Rob Mitrevski, vice president and general manager of spectral solutions at L3Harris.

“What that creates for us and our customer is an ability to be very agile in the way we address the evolving threat – to be very predictable in terms of schedule because you’re using previously developed technology building blocks,” Mitrevski said in the same interview.

That agility is a key feature of SDA’s mission to regularly upgrade its constellations with new capabilities.

The agency has launched 27 Tranche 0 satellites since April 2023 — eight for missile tracking and 19 for data transport and communications. In September, SDA will begin launching its Tranche 1 spacecraft, which will eventually include 161 operational satellites.

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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