Space Force Missile Track Custody prototype effort moves to hardware stage

Space Force Missile Track Custody prototype effort moves to hardware stage
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Raytheon Intelligence & Space will use its FORGE data processing system, designed for the Next-Gen OPIR program, for its prototype in the Space Force’s MEO missile warning/tracking demonstration. (Next-Gen OPIR graphic, RI&S)

WASHINGTON — The Space Force has approved both competitors — Raytheon Intelligence & Space (RI&S) and Boeing’s Millennium Space Systems — to move forward with building flight test prototypes to detect and track missiles in medium Earth orbit, according to officials from both companies.

The two companies developed their payload designs under the Missile Track Custody Demonstration (TCD) effort, which is managed by Space Systems Command (SSC) and was a precursor to the Space Force’s new “Resilient Missile Warning Missile Tracking – Medium Earth Orbit (MEO)” program. It also was touted as a flagship in SSC’s effort to increase the use digital design and digital engineering to help speed its procurement efforts.

RS&I and Millennium were contracted in May 2021, and both passed critical design review with their digital models in November. Both are now proceeding to the next phase, transitioning from a digital demonstration to building actual hardware for the future MEO constellation. Neither company released the value of the contracts.

“Millennium Space Systems was on contract through a base period that culminated with the Missile Track Custody, or MTC, payload critical design review in November 2022. Following the review, SSC executed the next contract option … for design through build and delivery of the first space vehicle. Delivery is expected by an estimated August 2026 date,” a spokesperson for Millennium said in an email.

In addition, the prototype contract includes options for a second and third vehicle, the spokesperson said.

RI&S announced its award today, noting that the company is teaming with Lockheed Martin to integrate its sensor payload onto a mid-size LM400 satellite bus.

A Raytheon spokesperson explained that the prototypes will not simply be used for testing, but will actually provide “initial” capability to war fighters.

“We will be proving mission capability. The payload will have a second [critical design review], which will further mature the design,” the spokesperson said.

RI&S also plans to base its ground system solution for the prototype on its “Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution Mission Data Processing Application Framework (FORGE MDPAF)” that collects and processes data from satellites. FORGE also will process data from the Space Force’s two ongoing missile warning/tracking programs: the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellation, which is on-orbit, and the future Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) constellation.

The results prototype program will feed into the Resilient Missile Warning Missile Tracking – Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) program, which is aimed not just at keeping tabs on adversary hypersonic missiles, but also designed to complicate adversary targeting by proliferating satellites in the little-used MEO orbit.

MEO lies between the upper edge of low Earth orbit at 2,000 kilometers above the Earth and geosynchronous orbit at 35,786 kilometers.

The SBIRS constellation includes three satellites in GEO, as well two more in highly elliptical orbit over the poles to cover the entire globe; as will Next-Gen OPIR sometime around 2029. A MEO constellation, but contrast will require between 10 and 15 satellites to provide similar coverage, but thus present a bigger, more complicated target set for adversaries.

Under current plans, the Space Force hopes to develop what it calls an “initial warfighting capability” with four MEO missile warning/tracking sats by 2028. Congress in the 2023 omnibus appropriations act approved $408.5 million in fiscal 2023 for the satellites and ground infrastructure, a bump up of some $269 million from the service’s request, according to an analysis by Velos.

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