SpaceX Is Building Missile Tracking Satellites for the Pentagon

'The satellites will be able to provide missile tracking data for hypersonic glide vehicles and the next generation of advanced missile threats.'
October 6, 2020, 4:11pm
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Spectators watch from Canaveral National Seashore as a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 60 Starlink satellites launches from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on October 6, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. This is the 13th batch of satellites placed into orbit by SpaceX as part of a constellation designed to provide broadband internet service around the globe. Image: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Department of Defence's Space Development Agency (SDA) awarded Elon Musk’s SpaceX a $149 million contract to build four missile tracking satellites. 

"The satellites will be able to provide missile tracking data for hypersonic glide vehicles and the next generation of advanced missile threats," Derek Tournear, the director of the Space Development Agency, said in a press release. SpaceX will build and deliver four of its Starlink satellites which the Pentagon said it will fit with special sensors to allow them to track missiles, including nuke-bearing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles.

Musk’s satellites are part of a broader Pentagon plan to pepper the sky with hundreds of satellites with multiple functions. The SpaceX satellites are meant explicitly to track and monitor threats in the sky as part of what the Pentagon calls “Tranche 0.” According to an SDA press release, Tranche 0 will have 28 transport sattleties and 8 tracking satellites.

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SDA rendering of America's National Space Defense. Image: SDA

"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," Tourner said in the press release about the satellites. Hypersonic glide vehicles are a new kind of missile that would, in theory, allow missiles to maneuver around existing missile defense systems at high speed. The U.S. and China are both developing hypersonic glide missiles. Russia claims it has already deployed some.

According to the Pentagon, the tracking satellites will watch for incoming missile threats then communicate with the transport satellites. SpaceX is only building four of the hundreds of satellites the Pentagon plans to launch over the next few years. L3Harris Technologies also won a contract for four of the tracking satellites. The transport satellites, which the Pentagon has said would number between 300 and 500, have yet to be built and launched.

Basically, the Pentagon is building a complicated network of satellites that it hopes will be able to track threats and knock them out of the sky before they can cause damage. SpaceX’s four tracking satellites are a small part of a larger Pentagon plan to put hundreds of satellites in orbit over the next few years.

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SDA rendering of its space based missile defense system. Image: SDA

The next layer of the system is slated for 2024 and will include several hundred more satellites in the transport layer and dozens more in the tracking layer, according to the Pentagon. "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," Tournear said.

The SDA is a Pentagon agency tasked with weaponizing space for U.S. interests and defense.. “The SDA will define and monitor the Department’s future threat-driven space architecture and will accelerate the development and fielding of new military space capabilities necessary to ensure our technological and military advantage in space for national defense,” explained a 2019 memo creating the agency

"Our architecture is entirely warfighter-focused for the terrestrial battlefield. 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,” Tournear said. “We're focused on making sure that we can provide capabilities from space."

This is SpaceX’s first military contract but not its first foray into the stars. As of this writing, Musk’s rocket company has launched more than 700 satellites.