Several superpowers are working on hypersonic missiles, weapons that are very difficult to stop due to their extremely high speed. As the hypersonic missiles rapidly move toward becoming practical weapons, the US is working on systems to combat them.
The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has now launched two nanosatellites – known as CubeSats – to develop a system to track hostile ballistic and hypersonic missiles from launch to impact. The CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment (CNCE) Block 1 – part of MDA’s Nanosat Testbed Initiative – uses small, low-cost satellites to demonstrate networked radio communications between nanosatellites while in orbit.
The two CubeSats were launched from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on June 30 for a three-month technology demonstration mission. The mission will see if the two CubeSats can navigate properly, receive and send signals to radios and networks and operate as intended. Once proven successful, it could play a key role in US missile defense technology.
“These satellites will test key technologies that mitigate risk for systems, such as the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor,” Walt Chai, MDA director for space sensors, said. “The CNCE Block 1 mission will demonstrate the viability of advanced communications technologies using reduced size, weight, and power in support of missile defense communications architectures.“
MDA is currently working on the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) payload. When eventually deployed on satellites in low earth orbit, it will detect and track hypersonic and ballistic missile threats and provide critical data to the Missile Defense System and the warfighter.
“The missile defense architecture will require communications between interceptors, sensors, and command and control systems to quickly identify, track and destroy incoming enemy missiles before they reach their targets. The CubeSats will allow the agency to demonstrate the capabilities quickly and affordably,” Chai said.
The two CubeSats, each about the size of a loaf of bread, went to space aboard a VOX Space LLC, a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, LauncherOne rocket as part of a payload-sharing arrangement with the DOD Space Test Program.
By using CubeSats built with off-the-shelf parts, the Missile Defense Agency can quickly and cheaply roll out modifications and test them in space in a series of missions as the technology matures. The cost per satellite is about $1.3 million versus the hundreds of millions required for traditional satellite construction. The hardware was built, and the bus and payloads were integrated under a Rapid Innovation Fund contract.