COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The U.S. Space Force’s next generation of missile warning satellites has passed a major design milestone, clearing the way for fabrication and integration to begin.

The Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program is the successor to the Space Based Infrared System, which currently operates as the military’s premier missile warning satellite constellation. Next Gen OPIR will be made up of five satellites: three in geostationary orbit (Next Gen OPIR GEO) and another two in highly elliptical orbits for polar coverage. The first satellite is set to launch in 2025.

On Aug. 24 during the 2021 Space Symposium trade show, the Space Force announced that the Next Gen OPIR GEO satellites had successfully completed critical design review, which validates the design’s maturity and opens the fabrication, integration and testing phase. Preliminary design review was completed in 2019. A systemwide critical review for Next Gen OPIR GEO is expected this fall.

“With this successful CDR, we remain on schedule to launch the first GEO satellite in 2025,” Col. Brian Denaro, program executive officer for space development and director of Space Systems Command’s Space Development Corps, said in a statement. “As the backbone of our nation’s assured missile warning capability, we are leveraging streamlined acquisition authorities on the Next Gen OPIR program to prototype solutions rapidly, using available industry capabilities and mature technology, to ensure that we can deliver advanced capabilities to the warfighter at operationally relevant speeds.”

The Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin $2.9 billion in 2018 for design work, while the Space Force issued another $4.9 billion to begin manufacturing.

The news comes shortly after two critical sensor payloads passed their own critical design reviews. Lockheed Martin has subcontracted to two teams to build the infrared sensor for the first three Next Gen OPIR GEO satellites. Raytheon Technologies and a team made up of Ball Aerospace and Northrop Grumman will provide one payload each to go on one of those satellites. Lockheed Martin will select one provider to supply a third sensor for the final GEO satellites.

Northrop Grumman is also designing the two polar satellites. The Space Force awarded the company $2.4 billion in 2020 for design work on those.

Meanwhile, the Space Force has already begun issuing contracts for the next set of Next Gen OPIR satellites. In May, the service awarded $29 million to Raytheon Technologies and $28 million to Millennium Space Systems, a Boeing subsidiary, to build digital models. The contractors will also use emerging digital engineering tools to validate whether Next Gen GEO satellites can fulfill their mission in a new orbital regime: medium Earth orbit closer to the planet’s surface.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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