Can a New Satellite Network Track Hypersonic Missiles During Flight?

Can a New Satellite Network Track Hypersonic Missiles During Flight?

A satellite network can ensure that an incoming hypersonic missile can be continuously tracked to establish real-time “global coverage” that will predict the impact point.

If a hypersonic missile were traveling along the upper boundary of the earth’s atmosphere at five times the speed of sound, how could defenders track it from a dispersed geographic area? Confronting this challenge is why the Pentagon is moving quickly to launch large numbers of low and medium earth orbit satellites engineered to process information at the point of collection, build in network redundancy, and use high-throughput systems to network threat-specific data across disconnected fields of view.

The idea is to not only detect the initial flash through space-based infrared sensors such as the overhead persistent infrared satellite but also to network high-throughput data processing between satellites to track a missile traveling beyond the earth’s atmosphere into space. This can ensure that an incoming hypersonic missile can be continuously tracked to establish real-time “global coverage” that will predict the impact point throughout the entire flight of the missile.

Raytheon Intelligence & Space, and its subsidiary Blue Canyon Technologies, have been conducting research and experiments to offer new kinds of multi-function sensing, networking, and data processing to the Pentagon based on its adaptable software model. 

“The concept here is that our processing systems are very generic. These are fully 100 percent Software Defined processing systems. So the same box, the same piece of hardware that you're going to buy, can be programmed to do the sensor processing, it can be programmed to do the networking, and it can be programmed to do communications. It’s kind of a gateway concept,” Karen McConnell, executive director, engineering, Blue Canyon Technologies, told The National Interest. “You can actually have the concept of formation or a grouping of satellites, where some are actually doing the sensor collection, some are doing the comprehensive networking and some are doing the communication systems.” 

Gateway systems, engineered with common technical standards to enable interoperability, are critical in a data-driven combat environment since they can take data from one format, such as RF, GPS, or a given wireless frequency, and use advanced software to “translate” between different data formats. This is the kind of seamless connectivity and multi-functional satellite operations envisioned by Raytheon Intelligence & Space and Blue Canyon.

Part of Blue Canyon’s technical approach is based upon its Saturn Bus product line, a large “bus” designed to generate more power, higher data throughput, more payload accommodation, and more instrument accommodation, McConnell explained. 

With geostationary (GEO) satellites providing the initial warning by detecting the launch “flash,” large numbers of medium earth orbit (MEO) and low earth orbit (LEO) satellites can gather, process, and transmit data at speeds fast enough to sustain a targeting track. Much of this can be enabled by artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled data processing at the point of collection, using advanced algorithms and computer automation 

“The goal here is to bring that processing right to the edge of the sensor systems on orbit, and do data reduction, do data analysis, do compression and storage and optimize the whole rest of the chain,” she added. 

Inter-satellite links, networking, and data connectivity will bring this concept to life, as software upgrades and common data standards can enable a high-speed data relay system, perhaps the most critical element in establishing a track. 

“We also have made the bus very configurable in the comm aspects. So we have our own products for radios as S-band and X-band. And we have created interfaces that can accommodate third-party radios to go very high bandwidth if we need high data throughput. These are big data systems that need to push a lot of information quickly. We've designed the power system to accommodate these,” Roger Cole, executive director for Strategic Systems, Space & C2 Systems, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, told The National Interest in an interview.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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