SpaceX, Elon Musk's aerospace manufacturing company, has been awarded a $149 million contract to missile-tracking satellites for the Pentagon, officials announced Monday, October 5.
This awarding marks the first government contract for SpaceX, known for its Falcon Heavy line of reusable rockets and Dragon crewed spacecraft. It has recently focused on the production for the Starlink project - a constellation of Internet satellites currently in low Earth orbit. Before the Starlink launch last year, founder and CEO Elon Musk believes that Starlink will be the key to funding his interplanetary goals, including sending astronauts to Mars.
SDA's WFOV Satellite Contract for SpaceX, L3Harris
According to the US Space Development Agency (SDA), as reported by Reuters, Elon Musk's private aerospace contractor will be using its Redmond, Washington assembly plant to build four new satellites for the US Department of Defense. This facility has been used by SpaceX mainly in the mass production of small satellites used in its Starlink constellation.
Under the contract, SpaceX will develop four broad fields of view (WFOV) satellites fitted with infrared missile tracking sensors. Derek Tournear, SDA Director, said that the awarded contracts represent the US government's "next step" towards realizing National Defense Space Architecture.
The project is shared with L3 Harris Technologies, formerly known as Harris Corporation, also contracted to build another four satellites. The defense and communications company was awarded $193 million and, together with SpaceX, expected to have the WFOV missile-tracking satellites ready by the fall of 2022.
Updating US Defense Strategies
"The SDA Tracking Layer is an integral part of the [Defense] Department's overall overhead persistent infrared strategy to detect, track, and defeat advanced missile threats," said Tournear. He expressed confidence in these "fixed-price awards" to help the SDA deliver the first phase of the Tracking Layer."
Its tracking layer will be made up of two main parts: one is the wide-field satellites that will track the presence and trajectories of missiles and send a warning, the other being the medium-field of view (MFOV) satellites - part of the Hypersonic Ballistic Missile Tracking Sensor of the Missile Defense Agency - which communicates with other systems and tracks hypersonic moving objects.
With the tracking layer in place, US defense will be equipped with detecting, and possibly intercepting, advanced missile threats. An example commonly used in modern warfare are intercontinental ballistic missiles - a guided ballistic missile that can travel exceptionally long distances and are designed to carry warheads - which can get difficult to track and intercept.
Partnership Between the Government and Industry Partners
Tournear also praised the collaboration between the Missile Defense Agency, the Space Development Agency, and industry partners such as SpaceX and L3Harris.
"We look forward to working collaboratively with industry and our government partners like MDA to deliver a tracking solution that puts critical information in the hands of the joint warfighter at or ahead of the speed of the threat," Tournear said.
An SDA official added that the two agencies would be working together towards full compatibility between their two systems. Up to eight WFOV satellites are scheduled to be a part of Tranche 0 of their SDA tracking layer, while the MDA is looking to at least two more MFOV satellites by 2023.