As adversaries continue to field advanced weaponry, missile threats against the nation are growing rapidly. They’re more complex, survivable, reliable and accurate than ever before.
“The traditional missile warning architecture is not designed for the new, advanced hyper glide vehicle threat, putting our nation at risk,” said Jason Kim, CEO of Millennium Space Systems, a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Boeing Company. “Adding additional layers to the OPIR (Overhead Persistent Infrared) architecture will allow us to not only warn against oncoming threats, but also track these advanced threats in order to intercept them.”
The hypersonic glide vehicle China demonstrated last summer sounded the alarm, altering the threat landscape which had long been defined by intercontinental ballistic missiles with predictable and easily recognizable trajectories.
“Hypersonic glide vehicles make it so you could easily lose those threats over the horizon, which means you can’t intercept them,” said Kim, a former Airman and U.S. Air Force Academy graduate before launching his civilian career. “But if you’re tracking them from their deployment all the way to the endgame, that allows you to have full trajectory-tracking of those threats so that you can intercept them.”
In this new “missile tracking” era, the U.S. Space Force needs the ability to identify and track missile threats from launch, into space, through maneuvers, and into its terminal phase in order to shoot them down before they do serious damage. Millennium Space Systems is working closely with the Space Force to meet this emerging challenge.
“Guardians will be operating our future systems in LEO, MEO, and GEO in a layered architecture,” Kim said, referring to low-Earth, medium-Earth, and geosynchronous orbits. “Our systems will be a hybrid of ground and onboard data processing in the future. So what you’re going to see is fewer humans in the loop and a faster transition from sensing to shooting to address these threats.”
Conventional space-based missile tracking satellites have been placed in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), about 36,000 kilometers above the Earth, where they get the broadest possible view of a fixed portion of the Earth. But to ensure the ability to track hypersonic missiles traversing unpredictable paths, Millennium is developing a constellation of flexible satellites that can operate in multiple orbits.
For space operators, the lower the orbit, the more satellites they need. While just a few satellites could cover the Earth in GEO, the Space Force will need a few dozen small satellites at MEO and hundreds at LEO.
“Our expertise at Millennium Space Systems is in small satellite prototype and constellations,” Kim said. “Right now, we’re moving toward a high-volume production capability that’s going to allow us to deliver constellations faster. We have the right expertise in digital engineering, model-based systems engineering and high-volume production, which all comes back to delivering these systems faster for the warfighters.”
Acquired by Boeing in 2018, Millennium Space Systems is now leveraging volume production and design for manufacturability and test engineering strategies from its parent company.
“We’ve learned a lot from The Boeing Company, like digital engineering and model-based systems engineering – tools that have allowed us to produce satellite systems more efficiently and at high volume,” Kim said. “Staying ahead of the curve is important, particularly where threats are advancing quickly. We need to produce these systems at-volume and at-rate. Being part of Boeing makes that possible.”
Kevin Paxton, senior technical fellow at Boeing, said the company is learning from Millennium, as well.
“Boeing has a lot of space and launch capabilities, but we’re not known for rapid development and deployment. Millennium Space Systems brings that agility into the fold and that’s worked out very well. At the same time, they can reach back into Boeing for additional technical or manufacturing support. Together we can deploy capabilities to the warfighter much more quickly as a result and at much lower cost than we’ve done traditionally.”
Being able to be both fast and efficient is critical as satellite constellations grow from a few to dozens or more.
“One of the main advantages of small satellite constellations is when you build those small satellites in volume, the unit price goes down significantly,” Kim said. “That means you have more affordable systems performing the missions that are traditionally done by larger, more expensive systems. And because you have multiple small satellites in the constellation, you also get built-in resiliency.”
The threat posed by anti-satellite weapons is lessened when the number of satellites in the constellation increases.
“Another advantage of small satellites is that because these advanced threats are constantly evolving, you’re having to refresh the technology of your constellation constantly,” Kim said. “With smaller, less expensive satellites, you’re able to field technology refreshments faster and more often.”
Smaller, less costly satellites can be designed for shorter lifespans, therefore enabling more rapid technology refresh and vastly shortened deployment schedules.
“Typical development times from design to launch for small satellites can span between 12 to 36 months,” Kim said. “Then you could commission these small satellites within weeks to months, once they launch and go on-orbit.”
In one case, the Tetra-1 program, Millennium Space Systems delivered the promised satellite in under 15 months.
“We expect that spacecraft to launch in 2022 and it’s going to geosynchronous orbit to form new techniques, tactics, procedures, and concepts of operation for Space Force Guardians,” Kim said referring to Tetra-1 program. “With the Tetra-1 program, we worked very collaboratively with the Space Force. We got to know their expectations, requirements, and design elements intimately. That allows us to address requirements very rapidly, working shoulder-to-shoulder with the Space Force to ensure performance, cost, schedule, and delivery meets every expectation.”