Skip to Content
Space

The Pentagon wants to launch satellite constellations to track missiles

October 7, 2019
An Atlas V rocket carrying a Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite for an Air Force mission.
An Atlas V rocket carrying a Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite for an Air Force mission.
An Atlas V rocket carrying a Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite for an Air Force mission.United Launch Alliance / Department of Defense

The Pentagon wants to develop and deploy constellations of satellites that would bolster missile defense systems and other military applications in low Earth orbit.

The news: The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency (SDA), created in March to oversee space-related projects pursued across the US military, is proposing the establishment of a “National Defense Space Architecture,” according to Bloomberg News. The system, which would consist of as many as 1,200 satellites, would create several layers of satellite constellations. These would be used to warn the US military if any countries like China or Russia launched an attack using hypersonic weapons (capable of traveling five times the speed of sound). The Pentagon has asked for $11 billion in a draft budget in part to make this happen.

Watch from above: Current constellations used for such monitoring comprise just a few satellites that reside in high altitudes. The SDA believes a larger network situated in lower orbits will be more reliable at detecting missile threats and faster at beaming communications down to defense systems in the air, on the ground, and at sea. The agency is seeking to have 20 satellites operating by 2022, and a system backbone of 250 satellites operating by 2025. There are still questions as to how the agency intends to launch and install these constellation layers in orbit by 2025, however.

Trending: The proposal comes at a time when many other groups are pursuing satellite constellation systems of their own, such as SpaceX and OneWeb. The SDA's pitch, however, seems to be the first major outline of a large constellation for military purposes. Like other constellation projects, it will likely stoke fears that sending thousands more objects into space will only create more risks of collisions and damage between satellites.

Deep Dive

Space

supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way
supermassive black hole at center of Milky Way

This is the first image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy

The stunning image was made possible by linking eight existing radio observatories across the globe.

SpaceX Starship
SpaceX Starship

How SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket might unlock the solar system—and beyond

With the first orbital test launch of Starship on the horizon, scientists are dreaming about what it might make possible— from trips to Neptune to planetary defense.

Photograph, Seine et Marne on march the 6th 2021 at night. Taurus constellation. On this image we can see the effect of the movements of artificial satellites through the sky. On the left we can see the planet Mars, on the right the famous stars cluster the Pleiades (M45). From the bottom right the luminous trail of the satellite STARLINK-1269, and from the top the luminous trail of the satellite STARLINK-1577
Photograph, Seine et Marne on march the 6th 2021 at night. Taurus constellation. On this image we can see the effect of the movements of artificial satellites through the sky. On the left we can see the planet Mars, on the right the famous stars cluster the Pleiades (M45). From the bottom right the luminous trail of the satellite STARLINK-1269, and from the top the luminous trail of the satellite STARLINK-1577

SpaceX just lost 40 satellites to a geomagnetic storm. There could be worse to come.

Increasing solar activity could play havoc with mega-constellations like Starlink in the coming years.

space tourism concept
space tourism concept

Space is all yours—for a hefty price

Commercial spaceflight is now officially a thing. But is it a transcendent opportunity for the masses, or just another way for rich people to show off?

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.