The existing US reconnaissance satellite constellation allows us to record ballistic missile launches around the world. But its resolution is only enough to track the active sections of the trajectory — while the accelerator engines are running. If the missile has a maneuvering or hypersonic warhead, it is still difficult to determine exactly where the warheads are flying. The new satellites that the Pentagon recently ordered will fix this flaw.
Last Monday, November 27, the US Space Force (USSF) "gave the go-ahead" to Millennium Space Systems to start production of the first batch of new satellites. As reported by SpaceNews, it will include six vehicles designed to operate in medium Earth orbit — this is the area of space around our planet, in the range from two to 20 thousand kilometers altitude. The exact characteristics of the satellites are not disclosed.
It is known that they will be built on the proven Altair platform. Unfortunately, due to the fact that this is a modular architecture, this information does not carry almost any details about the final product.
In the portfolio of Millennium Space Systems there are devices on the Altair platform weighing from six to 50 kilograms, with electrical power for a payload from 16 to 90 watts. We can only say with confidence that these will not be the most expensive devices — in the production of its products, the company actively uses ready-made commercial solutions (commercially available industrial electronics, standard motors, orientation systems) and additive technologies for structural elements.
The cost of the ordered six satellites is not specified, only the total funding requested by the USSF for the Missile Track Custody (MTC) program for 2024 is 500 million dollars. But this is only a planned budget and only for one year, and the whole project will last at least until 2026. In addition, not only Millennium Space Systems satellites will be ordered under the MTC. This program covers a full-fledged network of sensors placed in mid-Earth orbit to detect and track rocket launches. That is, its budget should include additional devices from other manufacturers, the development of the necessary infrastructure and the cost of operating all this wealth.
On its website, Millennium Space Systems boasts that it has passed all the vicissitudes of the state defense order with record speed. This confirms the trend previously announced by the Pentagon to accelerate the development of promising technologies that are critically important for the country. Curiously, two other companies were less fortunate: Raytheon and L3Harris have not yet received approval from the US Space Systems Command (SSC), which is responsible for auditing the projects proposed by contractors. Both of these eminent companies also seek to participate in Missile Track Custody, and they will have to create three more satellites planned for the first stage of the new reconnaissance constellation.
In total, the Space Forces are going to launch 27 satellites into medium Earth orbit to track launches of a variety of missile weapons. The first phase of Epoch 1 consists of nine devices, which should be launched at the end of 2026. The rest will appear later and provide global coverage with infrared "eyes".
Unlike the analogs currently operating, these satellites will be located significantly below the geosynchronous orbit, which means they will be closer to potential observation objects. Thanks to this, they will be able to detect and observe in real time not only the bright flares of rocket engines, but also much colder targets. For example, hypersonic warheads maneuvering in the upper atmosphere.