Rocket Lab will help the U.S. Space Force build missile warning satellites

The military satellites can detect missiles headed toward the U.S from anywhere in the world.
Chris Young
The missile defense satelliteRocket Lab
  • Rocket Lab will provide components for Lockheed Martin's missile warning satellites.
  • The U.S. Space Force acquired the satellites for $4.9 billion in January.
  • Rocket Lab will build on solar space technology developed by SolAero, which it acquired in January.

Rocket Lab will build solar cells and radiation-hardened assemblies for Lockheed Martin's in-development missile warning satellites, a press statement reveals.

The geostationary Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) satellites will be operated by the U.S. Space Force as part of its bid to secure U.S. interests from space.

The agreement between Lockheed Martin and Rocket Lab, announced July 27, will see the latter help build the military satellites, which are scheduled to launch starting in 2025.

New missile warning satellites are 'critical' for national security

The satellites will provide early warning of any incoming ballistic or tactical missile launch from anywhere in the world. It's part of the U.S.'s increased militarization of space following the publication of the U.S. Space Force's 'Spacepower' military doctrine in 2020.

"We are excited to continue our long-term partnership with Lockheed Martin by powering the Next Gen OPIR GEO satellites," said Brad Clevenger, Rocket Lab’s Vice President & General Manager, Space Systems Power Solutions. "These satellites are critical to the mission needs of the United States Space Force and our national security, and we are proud to be supporting their production on an aggressive schedule."

For Rocket Lab, the new agreement will probably form a glorious return on investment following its $80 million acquisition of New Mexico-based solar power system manufacturer SolAero Technologies in January. SolAero was founded in 1998, and it developed solar power units for NASA's Parker Solar Probe, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Mars Insight Lander, and Cygnus cargo spacecraft.

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In March, Rocket Lab announced the newly-acquired SolAero department was developing new solar cells called IMM-β. These will have a conversion efficiency of roughly 33.3 percent in volume production, and they will be more than 40 percent lighter than typical space-grade solar cells — meaning they will be much cheaper to launch to orbit.

Lockheed Martin and Rocket Lab team up

In January, Lockheed Martin was granted a $4.9 billion contract to build three of the Next-Gen OPIR satellites. The U.S. Space Force awarded contracts for five Next-Gen OPIR satellites — three geosynchronous orbit satellites made by Lockheed Martin and two polar orbit satellites made by Northrop Grumman.

Lockheed Martin actually used SolAero technologies on its previous generation of missile defense satellites, so continuing work with the now-Rocket-Lab-owned company may seem like a no-brainer. In fact, as SpaceNews points out, the deal to supply solar power units for Next-Gen OPIR satellites was in the works before Rocket Lab acquired SolAero.

Lockheed Martin produced six of its previous generation satellites, called the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), in total. For the next-gen satellites, Rocket Lab will provide solar cells and Coverglass Interconnected Cell (CIC) assemblies. These are designed to withstand the harsh environment of space, including radiation and harsh thermal conditions.

Rocket Lab, which was also founded in 1998 in New Zealand, is known for some pretty out-there designs, including its Hungry Hungry Hippo-inspired fairing and its system for catching first-stage rocket boosters out of the sky with helicopters. The company also recently helped NASA launch its CAPSTONE smallsat towards the Moon in a mission that will pave the way for the space agency's lunar Gateway project.

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