Hypersonic Missile Tracking Satellites

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The US Space Development Agency (SDA) plans to test its hypersonic missile detection satellite constellation, which was developed by SpaceX and L3Harris Technologies. The existing constellation consists of 8 satellites and will be tested to observe and collect information on planned US missile launches.

SDA director Derek Tournear told reporters that they have been working closely with the Missile Defense Agency to ensure good overflight of their satellites for good visible test results and added that their current satellites have been monitoring missile “hot spots” in the meantime.

According to Interesting Engineering, the current, first demonstrative tranche is limited by its number of satellites, and the agency does not expect to achieve global coverage for a few years. Furthermore, the latest satellites launched (from February 2024) are still undergoing “checkout,” which means that SDA can only provide about 10% of the coverage that is required.

The tranche 0 satellites transmit more data to the ground during the demonstration phase than the operational spacecraft since the agency wants to collect as much information as possible. However, the amount of data being offloaded means the dissemination process takes significantly longer.

“It takes one to two days after we take an image of an event to get all of those data down to then run through the algorithms,” explained Tournear. “That’s why these targets of opportunity are unpredictable — because we can’t get the data down to look and then retest it.”

The agency reportedly plans to eventually create a missile tracking layer of at least 100 satellites. The newer Tranche 3 satellites will have similar capabilities to previous models, but will have more capacity in orbit and improved performance. Tournear concluded that they intend to add more missile defense satellites to make sure they have enough coverage for the missile defense mission by the 2030 timeframe.