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L3Harris to build prototype satellite for tracking of hypersonic missiles

Minuteman III test launch
Illustration. Photo: US Air Force

The US Missile Defense Agency has awarded L3Harris Technologies a $121.6 million contract to develop and deliver a prototype satellite capable of tracking hypersonic missiles in low Earth orbit.

The prototype award is part of the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) Phase IIa effort, which aims to address the shortcomings of most terrestrial-based radars that cannot detect hypersonic weapons until late in the weapon’s flight.

According to a contract award issued by the agency, L3Harris is expected to provide an on-orbit prototype demonstration, culminating with launch and early orbit testing. The work has an estimated completion date of July 2023.

The effort is being undertaken as both existing terrestrial- and space-based sensor architectures are believed to be insufficient for the detection and tracking of hypersonic weapons. The most prominent problem is the fact that hypersonic targets are much dimmer than what the US satellites in geostationary orbit usually track.

HBTSS will work in parallel with an eight-satellite wide field of view (WFOV) architecture, which is being developed by the US Space Defense Agency. While WFOV is ultimately expected to provide global coverage, HBTSS will provide more sensitive, but more limited (medium field of view) coverage.

L3Harris, alongside SpaceX, will build the eight WFOV satellites under a US Space Development Agency contract from October 2020.