The US Department of Defense Space Development Agency (SDA) awarded a $149 million contract to build four missile tracking satellites on Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
SpaceX will build and deliver four Starlink satellites, which the Pentagon says will comply with special sensors that allow them to track missiles, including nuclear weapons-carrying Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and hypersonic gliders.
SpaceX satellites will be used to clearly track threats in the sky, as part of what the Pentagon calls “Tranche 0”. According to the SDA press release, Tranche 0 will have 28 transport satellites and 8 tracking satellites.
“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 devices are a new type of missile that theoretically allows missiles to maneuver at high speed around existing missile defense systems. The US and China are developing hypersonic glide missiles. Russia claims it has already deployed some of them.
Tracking satellites will track incoming missile threats and then communicate with transport satellites, according to the Pentagon. SpaceX is building just four of the hundreds of satellites the Pentagon plans to launch in the next few years. L3Harris Technologies has also won a contract for four tracking satellites. Transport satellites, which the Pentagon says will number between 300 and 500, have not yet been built or launched.
Basically, the Pentagon is building a complex satellite network that it hopes can track threats and expel them from the sky before they cause harm. SpaceX’s four tracking satellites are a small part of a larger Pentagon plan that aims to orbit hundreds of satellites over the next few years.
According to the Pentagon, the next layer of the system is planned for 2024, and will include several hundred satellites in the transport layer and dozens more in the tracking layer. “Every two years from now on, we continually roll out and replicate more satellites with new capabilities, and essentially retire the satellites with older capabilities as we develop new slices,” says Tournear.
What is SDA?
SDA is a Pentagon agency tasked with arming space for US interests and defense.
This is SpaceX’s first military contract, but not its first foray into the stars. As of this summer, Musk’s rocket company launched more than 700 satellites.
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