L3Harris, SpaceX to Build SDA’s First Missile-Tracking Satellites

L3Harris and SpaceX won contracts Oct. 5 to provide the first ballistic missile warning satellites for the Space Development Agency, growing the number of companies working on the future military constellation to four.

L3Harris received $193.6 million and SpaceX got $149.2 million to design, develop, and launch satellites that use wide-view, overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) sensors to see and track missile launches, SDA said in a release. As companies gradually build more and more of the systems, they will comprise a group of satellites known as the “tracking layer” in low Earth orbit.

Improving missile defense is one of SDA’s main goals for its future constellation that will surveil space and the Earth, allow troops on the ground to communicate, and more. The awards grow L3Harris’ business as a prime satellite builder and solidifies SpaceX as a defense contractor on multiple programs. SpaceX is already one of the main companies whose rockets bring satellites, sensors, and experiments to orbit for the Pentagon.

“These awards represent the next major step toward fielding the national defense space architecture,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said in the Oct. 5 release. “The SDA tracking layer is an integral part of the department’s overall [OPIR] strategy to detect, track, and defeat advanced missile threats. … We look forward to working collaboratively with industry and our government partners like [the Missile Defense Agency] to deliver a tracking solution that puts critical information in the hands of the joint warfighter at or ahead of the speed of the threat.”

Tournear said he is happy with the response from industry, from which SDA received nine proposals.

DOD expects these systems will complement the Missile Defense Agency’s Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor satellites, which will offer high-resolution images in a narrower field of view. While SDA’s satellites are going to provide missile warning and tracking data to defense officials, and other information needed to target an incoming missile, MDA’s satellites will pull in that information to track and target hypersonic weapons.

In theory, each piece of the missile-warning enterprise should be able to connect back to troops on the ground who will analyze the information and dispatch defenses if needed.

SDA’s project will reach orbit before MDA’s as well. The first batch of up to eight missile defense satellites, part of the group known as “Tranche 0,” will launch at the end of fiscal 2022 alongside 20 data-sharing satellites that SDA bought in August. MDA could put two of its own satellites up the following year.

This batch of systems will connect to Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems’ data-sharing satellites known as the “transport layer.” They will also carry a data processor to talk to other military platforms through gateways like Link 16, and feature more automation than previous satellites.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Oct. 7 to include the number of contract bids received.