On October 5th, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., of Hawthorne, California won a $149 million contract to build missile-tracking satellites.
This is the company’s first ever government contract to build satellites.
For those confused, the company is better known as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which was presumably supposed to be an entirely civilian endeavor and not militarized in any way.
SpaceX, known for its reusable rockets and astronaut capsules, is ramping up satellite production for Starlink, a growing constellation of hundreds of internet-beaming satellites that chief executive Elon Musk hopes will generate enough revenue to help fund SpaceX’s interplanetary goals.
Under the SDA (Space Development Agency) contract, SpaceX will use its Starlink assembly plant in Redmond, Washington, to build four satellites fitted with a wide-angle infrared missile-tracking sensor supplied by a subcontractor, an SDA official said.
“The satellites will be able to provide missile tracking data for hypersonic glide vehicles and the next generation of advanced missile threats,” said Derek Tournear, the director of the Space Development Agency.
The contracts for both the tracking and transport layers are part of Tranche 0 of the NDSA. Tranche 0, he said, comprises 28 SDA satellites: 20 transport satellites and 8 tracking layer satellites. Tournear said there will be a separate solicitation to launch those 28 satellites.
The other part of the contract will be carried out by L3Harris Technologies, Inc.
“We call it ‘tracking’ because it’s missile tracking — so it provides detection, tracking and fire control formation for hypersonic glide vehicles, ballistic missiles … any of those kinds of threats,” Tournear said.
When tracking layer satellites detect a threat, such as a ballistic missile, they send that information to satellites in the transport layer.
“The transport satellites are the backbone of the National Defense Space Architecture,” Tournear said. “They take data from multiple tracking systems, fuse those, and are able to calculate a fire control solution, and then the transport satellites will be able to send those data down directly to a weapons platform via a tactical data link, or some other means.”
“With Tranche 0 in 2022, we will provide enough capability to where people can start to experiment with what those data could do, and figure out how they could put that into their operational plans for battle,” Tournear said.
Tranche 1, due in 2024, will include a couple hundred satellites in the transport layer, and a few dozen in the tracking layer.
With Tranche 2, in 2026, the SDA would continue to build out the system as needed. By then, he said, the SDA would have global coverage, ensuring that the capabilities provided by the NDSA could be available to warfighters anywhere in the world.
“Every two years thereafter, we would continually spiral out and proliferate more satellites with new capabilities and, in essence, retire satellites with older capabilities as we develop new tranches,” he said.
Tournear said that the NDSA is certainly based in space, its focus is mostly back on Earth — in support of service members conducting operations on land, at sea and in the air.
“Our architecture is entirely warfighter-focused for the terrestrial battlefield,” Tournear said. “Our goal is to be able to provide real-time targeting data for targets, for time-sensitive targets and for missiles, so that the terrestrial warfighter can utilize space to be able to affect their mission in real time. We’re focused on making sure that we can provide capabilities from space.”
Regardless, it was expected that SpaceX would militarize its operations, since it already carried out at least 1 joint exercise assisting the US Air Force and more.
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