U.S. launches hypersonic-warning testbed satellite


An experimental satellite now in orbit will help the United States refine the development of technology to identify and track hypersonic missiles and better protect the homeland.

The Wide Field of View Testbed (WFOV) satellite, pictured, launched July 1, 2022, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida bound for geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. Its mission is to “explore the ability of a single sensor to perform strategic and tactical missions simultaneously by continuously monitoring up to one-third of the Earth’s surface,” according to a June 28 news release from the WFOV manufacturer, Boeing’s Millennium Space Systems.

Satellites at such geosynchronous altitudes take 24 hours to complete one orbit and rotate in lockstep with Earth, allowing continuous hemispheric views and enabling use of ground antennas to relay data and commands, according to a July 1 CBS News story.

The WFOV’s operation while in orbit is related to the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) constellation, according to a June 29 story in Air Force Magazine.

“We’re looking at a range of targets and missiles in the hypersonic domain that are more maneuverable; they’re dimmer — harder to see; and that’s requiring a new approach to how we both detect and then track all of these missiles throughout their flight,” U.S. Space Force Col. Brian A. Denaro said during a June 28 call with reporters, according to the magazine.

“If you could imagine, with our current systems, they largely rely on [detecting] a ballistic trajectory of those missiles, with a predicted impact point,” Denaro said. “The change in the threats that we see coming online today are highly maneuverable, and so it’s hard to predict where those missiles are going to go. … We’re seeing these developments both in China and in Russia at a very fast pace.”

The WFOV satellite will monitor the atmosphere for infrared signatures at a higher resolution and over more of the Earth than existing satellites, according to the magazine.

Currently, missile-warning satellites detect launches the moment they begin. Ground-based radars detect and track missiles in flight, within and above the atmosphere, Space Operations Command spokesperson Mike Pierson told Air Force Magazine in a January 19 story. But the threat posed by hypersonics demands more advanced detection.

In a March 1 news release from Space Systems Command (SSC), Denaro called Next-Gen OPIR the “cornerstone” for “time-critical missile warning for our nation and allies.”

The Next-Gen OPIR will consist of three satellites in geosynchronous orbit providing coverage over mid-latitudes, and two satellites in highly elliptical orbit for coverage over the upper latitudes. The first GEO satellite remains on track for initial launch in 2025, while the first Polar satellite will launch in 2028, according to the news release from SSC, which is the USSF field command responsible for rapidly identifying, prototyping and fielding space capabilities.

Officials said the sensor in WFOV also could be used by the USSF’s planned missile warning/missile tracking constellation in medium Earth orbit as well as the Space Development Agency for its Tracking Layer satellites in low Earth orbit, according to a July 1 story on the news website Breaking Defense.

“That is applicable,” Denaro said, according to Breaking Defense, “across multiple layers regardless of altitude.”