First Hypersonic Missile Tracking Using Space Sensors

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The US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) revealed it is going to test its space-based Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS), which was deployed into orbit back in February. As the US is racing to stay ahead of threats from Russian and Chinese development efforts, tracking hypersonic missiles from space is needed to allow interceptors more time to lock on.

Current ground-based systems are limited by the curvature of the Earth and the nature of hypersonic missile flight paths, and so HBTSS is designed to overcome this issue and provide an early warning of potential hypersonic missiles – in-orbit sensors will have an unobstructed view and enable a more accurate and timely interception.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Heath Collins explained that the major challenge with hypersonic missiles is that they re-enter the atmosphere before ballistic missiles are detected, which leaves a very small window for interception due to their high speed, “and so instead of being down, looking up to find a hypersonic, you want to be high, looking down to track hypersonic… That’s what Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor is all about.”

Collins also revealed that the tests (which are expected to happen within a week or so) will involve a dummy target traveling at hypersonic speeds within the satellites’ field of view. According to Interesting Engineering, the test would assess the sensitivity, timeliness, and accuracy of the two systems to meet the demonstration objectives for HBTSS and potentially inform changes or confirm the system’s effectiveness, ultimately contributing to the future plans of the Space Development Agency.

However, it is important to note that detection and tracking are only part of the solution, and that the ability to physically intercept and destroy hypersonic missiles is equally as important.

Collins concluded that the Missile Defense Agency is currently focused on finding alternative near-term capabilities for the interceptors while it is working on developing the GPI as quickly as possible.