SpaceX, L3Harris win Space Development Agency contracts to build missile-warning satellites

Space

SDA Director Derek Tournear said SpaceX “came in with an extremely credible proposal” that leverages the Starlink assembly line

WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency awarded SpaceX a $149 million contract and L3Harris a $193.5 million contract to each build four satellites to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles.

The contracts announced Oct. 5 are for the first eight satellites of a potentially much larger Space Development Agency constellation of sensor satellites known as Tracking Layer Tranche 0. This is SpaceX’s first military contract to produce satellites. 

Both companies have to each deliver four satellites by September 2022, Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear told SpaceNews.

Each satellite will have a “wide field of view” overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) sensor capable of detecting and tracking advanced missile threats from low Earth orbit. Each satellite also will have an optical crosslink so it can pass data to relay satellites. 

Tournear said the winners were selected based on technical merit and ability to deliver satellites quickly.

SpaceX proposed a new satellite design that is based on the Starlink bus that SpaceX designed for its internet megaconstellation. Tournear said SpaceX is acquiring the OPIR sensor from another supplier but could not disclose the name. SpaceX has not yet revealed its subcontractors for this program.

L3Harris bid a complete satellite with the bus and payload produced in-house. 

The optical crosslinks in the Tracking Layer must be compatible with the optical links used in the Transport Layer satellites that Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems are building for the Space Development Agency.

The Transport Layer is the backbone that moves data collected by the sensors to anywhere in the world where the U.S. military needs it. 

Tournear said SpaceX “came in with an extremely credible proposal” that leverages its Starlink assembly line. 

“The selection is on technical merit but the schedule takes top priority,” he said. “The SDA model is based on leveraging commercial technology. We have leveraged commercial tier 2 suppliers. This is an example of how we are leveraging commercial tier 1 suppliers.”

“We want to show that we can take commoditized commercial components and perform a DoD mission,” said Tournear. 

All eight satellites will be launched in 2022 for a demonstration of the Tracking Layer. The next step will be to add 28 more wide field-of-view satellites and one or two “medium field of view” satellites that will be developed by the Missile Defense Agency. The medium field-of-view sensors provide more specific target location data to cue weapons automatically. 

A constellation of 28 wide field-of-view and two medium field-of-view OPIR satellites would be deployed in two planes of 15 satellites each. 

Tournear said the SDA is now reviewing bids for the “mission systems engineering and integration” contract. The winner will be responsible to tie the Transport Layer and the Tracking Layer with ground systems. 

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