Ten years strong
This tracking system set the stage for space-based missile warning
The report from the Pentagon made it clear: if we want to beat ballistic missiles, we need to be able to see them from space.
In its 2019 Missile Defense Review, the Department of Defense calls for "space-basing," or putting sensors and interceptors in orbit to detect and defeat attacks as early as possible.
One sensor has been laying the groundwork for futuristic space-based missile defense for years: the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, or STSS, developed by Raytheon for Northrop Grumman. It watches for ballistic missiles, monitors space objects and relays intelligence data, all from low Earth orbit.
“Space-based early warning gives our country an edge,” said Wallis Laughrey, vice president of Raytheon Space Systems. “The ability to track a missile from the time it’s launched is the key to effectively eliminating the threat.”
The system uses what is known as ‘boost-to-intercept’ tracking – meaning it can see a ballistic missile from the moment it launches to the moment a defensive strike destroys it. The system was the first of its kind to detect and track multiple targets from space at the same time.
And it's a survivor. Originally built to last two years on-orbit, STSS marked its tenth year of space operations in September 2019. On average, Raytheon's space-based sensors outperform their design life by two and a half times.
“STSS proved that we can do this mission on low-Earth orbit during real operations with real threats flying," said Mark Davis, director at Raytheon Space Systems. “Our next goal is to do it at a cost point that we can build dozens or maybe hundreds of satellites to do this mission across the whole globe in low Earth orbit.”
Following along the path of STSS, Raytheon is developing a new wave of space-based missile warning and defense systems that include a more responsive identification system to discriminate threats from space.
Those new systems include Next Gen OPIR, which uses three GEO and two polar satellites to provide early warning of intercontinental ballistic missiles and theater ballistic missiles. The system, which the government has dubbed a "go-fast" program, is expected to be operational by 2029.
Another system, one the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has dubbed Blackjack, will provide an additional layer of persistent global coverage. The Blackjack system will work autonomously to network multiple sensors together from low-Earth orbit. The goal is to demonstrate sensors that are low in size, weight and power - and can be mass-produced to fit on commercial, low-Earth satellites.
Both programs benefit from technology first developed on STSS.
“STSS laid the foundation for space-based missile warning,” said Laughrey. “That’s a testament to the brilliant minds who designed that system. But we can’t rest on our laurels. We’re taking what we’ve learned from STSS and passing that info to the next generation of engineers, so they can make their own contributions to space technology.”