SpaceX has been awarded a contract by the US Space Development Agency (SDA) worth about $149 million. The contract includes SpaceX building and launching a network of small satellites into low-Earth orbit to monitor missile launches.
Currently, the US has traditional satellites that can partially detect and monitor missile launches. The problem is that once a missile gets launched, it can’t be tracked over long distances due to the satellite’s limited field of view. This is where a large quantity of SpaceX’s smaller satellites could really make a difference.
SpaceX’s new defense contract requires them to build specially designed, smaller satellites with wide field of view overhead persistent infrared sensors (OPIR). This unique sensor, combined with an array of these smaller satellites spread out across the globe, would give the US unparalleled missile-tracking capabilities.
Luckily, SpaceX already has a bit of a headstart developing these satellites for the SDA because they will be based on its Starlink satellite. The OPIR sensor will come from an outside supplier, but we don’t know which supplier as of right now.
These specialized satellites are also required to be outfitted with optical crosslinks. These would allow the SpaceX satellites to send data to other relay satellites. The potentially tricky part here is that the optical crosslinks need to be compatible with the ones that satellites by different manufacturers use.
SpaceX is set to begin launching and testing the first of these satellites sometime in 2022. The SDA is currently looking into awarding a contract to another company that will be responsible for connecting all of these complex space systems with systems on the ground.