The launch of sensor satellites in the low Earth orbit (LEO) to cover blind spots in the United States’ missile defence system is moving from paper to reality. According to US defence sources, China and Russia are creating increasingly sophisticated hypersonic missiles that deploy into space and glide down into atmosphere on irregular trajectories.
At a sector convention earlier this month, General John Hyten who serves as Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Vice Chairman said, “I would like to have above sensors that detect everything, classify everything which goes on the planet from a missile standpoint, all the time, everywhere.”
Only sensors in the low orbits, according to the Pentagon, can see these threats precisely and early enough just to shoot them down. Infrared sensors on current early-warning satellites found in the geostationary orbit identify the heat signatures of the ballistic missile launches. Still, hypersonic warheads are dimmer and more difficult to spot from such high altitudes.
2019 Missile Defense Review of the Defense Department’s recommended investing in low-Earth orbit space sensors. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Space Development Agency (SDA) are both working on projects (MDA). SDA is building a constellation of satellites featuring wide-field-of-view sensors to detect and monitor targets in a network.
Under the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) program, MDA is working on a new set of sensors. The satellites equipped with medium-field-of-view sensors to detect an incoming missile’s precise location and transmit the information to a command center, allowing an interceptor to be launched.
To track and sustain custody of hypersonic missiles, SDA and MDA claimed a mix of wide- as well as medium-field-of-view sensors, is required. Both agencies’ satellites will be integrated into the Department of Defence’s bigger sensor system. Several companies have already awarded MDA and SDA deals for sensors, satellites and systems integration. Parsons, Northrop Grumman, L3Harris, and SpaceX have all won so far.
In June, MDA awarded Parsons a seven-year, $2.2 billion contracts for engineering, technical analysis, and modelling of the layered missile defence systems. “The hypersonic layer is going to be one of the key endeavours there,” Parsons Chief Executive Officer Carey Smith informed SpaceNews. According to Smith, the company will assist MDA in determining “how to identify and monitor hypersonics in the space, not just hypersonics but even advanced cruise missiles.”
According to her, the Department of Defense is making this a higher priority. “Right now, there is nothing” that can offset the threat of hypersonic missiles. According to Smith, the Department of Defense wants the space layer found in the LEO to identify and monitor both hypersonics and sophisticated cruise missiles. “We are simply assisting MDA in architecting what it might look like.”