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    Eyes in the Sky: Pentagon's 2024 Mission to Counter Hypersonic Threats

      TL;DR: The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency and Space Development Agency are collaborating on a mission to launch six satellites in the second quarter of 2024. This mission, designated USSF-124, was delayed from its original 2023 launch date due to technical issues. These satellites will form part of a defense system against hypersonic and ballistic missile threats, primarily from Russia and China. The project combines technologies from L3Harris and Northrop Grumman for the SDA's Tracking Layer and the MDA's Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program. Congressional defense committees are closely monitoring the project, emphasizing the need for clear delineation of roles between the two agencies and efficient mission execution.

    2024 Launch of Joint Satellite Mission

    The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and the Space Development Agency (SDA) are set to launch a critical national security space mission in the second quarter of 2024 per a report by SpaceNews. This initiative, initially planned for a December 2023 launch, faced delays due to technical difficulties with one of the spacecraft involved. The mission, titled USSF-124, aims to deploy six satellites equipped with advanced technology to detect and track hypersonic missiles.

    Innovative Satellite Technologies for Defense

    USSF-124 will feature a combination of cutting-edge technologies. Four of the six satellites, developed by L3Harris, are designed for the SDA's Tracking Layer constellation. These satellites are tailored to detect ballistic and hypersonic threats, particularly from nations like Russia and China. The remaining two satellites, one from L3Harris and another from Northrop Grumman, are integral to the MDA's Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) program. This program focuses on maintaining precise tracking of threats and facilitating data transfer to interceptor missiles.

    The Tracking Layer and HBTSS are crucial components of a planned multi-layered missile-defense architecture. The HBTSS specifically aims to demonstrate fire control technology essential for intercepting hypersonic weapons. To optimize efficiency, the SDA and MDA decided to merge their payloads, although this collaboration has faced delays due to production issues.

    Congressional Oversight and Agency Collaboration

    The collaboration between the MDA and SDA has garnered attention from congressional defense committees. These bodies are urging the Pentagon to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each agency in missile tracking. Representative Doug Lamborn expressed the importance of swiftly implementing the HBTSS for national security. Some lawmakers suggest that the SDA, known for its agility in developing space capabilities, should take the lead on this mission. Others advocate for the MDA's continued involvement, citing its extensive experience in tracking ballistic missiles.


    An important aspect to monitor is how the MDA and SDA, each reporting to different superiors, will cooperate. The MDA falls under the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, while the SDA reports to the U.S. Space Force chief of space operations and the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition and Integration.

    The mission's launch, scheduled to take place on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Base in Florida, marks a significant step in enhancing the United States' defense capabilities against emerging hypersonic threats.

    Image Credit: Midjourney

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