Hypersonic Weapons May Evade $342M Pentagon Satellite Project: China Study

The U.S. is making significant upgrades to the world's best missile early warning system in space, but the Pentagon will need at least 10 times more satellites to track future hypersonic weapons, a team of researchers in China said in a new study last week.

Last October, SpaceX and L3Harris won Space Development Agency (SDA) contracts to build a total of eight satellites to detect and track missiles as part of a new "tracking layer" in low-Earth orbit.

It will complement what is already the world's most sophisticated missile warning and defense system, the 11-satellite Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) operated by the U.S. Space Force.

To track hostile hypersonic missiles, however, new research in China suggested the Defense Department may need to operate up to 100 space-based sensors, according to a report on Monday in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

Citing a new paper in the monthly journal Infrared and Laser Engineering, the report said the tracking layer in its intended form could see hypersonic weapons evade detection in a "blind spot" beneath each satellite.

A hypersonic missile—exceeding Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound—would give off a different heat signature and have different flight patterns. The weapon's signal could also be "obscured or reduced by the atmosphere and background heat on Earth," said The Post.

But a powerful early warning system would allow American hypersonic weapons to intercept those being launched by China and Russia, according to the researchers with the People's Liberation Army-affiliated Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunication Technology.

Its potential weaknesses notwithstanding, the Pentagon's new tracking layer, which will be eventually handed over to the Space Force, is still set to become the world's fastest and most accurate early warning system, outperforming anything in use today, according to the article published by the Chinese Society of Astronautics.

The new satellites can theoretically train their cameras on a given target within two minutes. While tracking an incoming ballistic missile, the sensors could also reduce the margin of error to 200 meters (656 feet), said the researchers, who pored over publicly available documents.

According to the SDA, the SpaceX and L3Harris contracts were worth $149 million and $193.5 million, respectively. But the project isn't the Pentagon's only attempt to protect the U.S. from potential hypersonic threats.

In January, the Missile Defense Agency awarded contracts worth $155 million and $121 million, respectively, to Northrop Grumman and L3Harris for the construction of prototype sensors that will help track hypersonic weapons from space.

The project known as the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) also complements existing satellite arrays in low-Earth orbit as part of the Defense Department's next-generation missile defense "constellation."

China Scientists Study Pentagon Satellite Missile Defense
A file photo of Chief Master Sgt. Roger Towberman (R), Space Force and Command Senior Enlisted Leader, with Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett presenting former President Donald Trump with the official flag of the United States Space Force in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2020. Samuel Corum-Pool/Getty Images