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Maxar will build 14 missile-tracking satellites for new warning system

satellite in orbit around earth
Artist's conception of the L3Harris Technologies Tranche 1 Tracking Layer satellite program for the Space Development Agency. (Image credit: L3Harris)

Maxar Technologies will help build a U.S. missile-warning satellite system.

The Colorado-based company will supply 14 tracking satellites as a part of the Space Development Agency's (SDA) infrastructure in orbit to assist with U.S. anti-satellite weapon technology, Maxar announced (opens in new tab) Tuesday (Aug. 9). The satellites will be manufactured by 2024 for L3Harris Technologies, which along with Northrop Grumman are building the first two tranches of the SDA's constellation. Maxar's new announcement refers to the second batch of satellites, which L3Harris aims to launch in 2025.

Maxar officials stated that the low-Earth orbit satellites will assist with the SDA constellation's aims, which are to "provide limited global indications, warning and tracking of conventional and advanced missile threats, including hypersonic missile systems."

Related: What is a ballistic missile and how does it work?

Hypersonic weapons, which travel at speeds of Mach 5 or greater, are a goal of the United States military as well as international actors. In June, the U.S. hypersonic missile defense program narrowed down its hypersonic development scope to two prototypes manufactured by Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Missiles.

A congressional spending bill allocated an additional $550 million (opens in new tab) in fiscal 2022 to accelerate development of Tranche 1, the second set of satellites. The allocation happened as the SDA has been sounding alarms about Russian and Chinese development of hypersonic vehicles, and as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing a hypersonic missile interceptor program.

SDA's missile-tracking system is now developing the Tranche 1 tracking layer, which will upgrade Tranche 0, a first set of 28 satellites that will launch with SpaceX starting in September

For Tranche 0, eight tracking layer satellites will be used to detect threats and to send the information on to 20 tracking satellites, which can send the data they receive to a weapons platform, according to a 2020 Department of Defense release (opens in new tab).

Like the initial constellation, Tranche 1 will also include 28 infrared sensor satellites now estimated to cost $2.5 billion, according to a SpaceNews report (opens in new tab) quoting an anonymous official from the Department of Defense. L3 Harris has a $700 million (opens in new tab) share of the SDA Tranche 1 contracts, which total $1.3 billion.

During a July briefing (opens in new tab), SDA director Derek Tournear said that Tranche 1 will be the first set of satellites to target hypersonic maneuvering vehicles, and directly drew a link to Chinese and Russian activities. 

"These satellites are specifically designed to go after that next-generation version of threats out there," he said, adding, "That's the capability we're bringing that's new."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.