The U.S. military’s “missile shield” scans the seas and skies at all times to look for missiles heading toward U.S. territory from North Korea, China, or other adversary nations, but new types of missiles may fly so fast that the missile shield won’t spot them until it’s too late. Seeing these “hypersonic” missiles early enough to thwart them will require electronic eyes all the way up in space, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which is paying four private corporations to build space-based sensors expressly for tracking hypersonic and ballistic missiles.

The MDA announced the contract awards last month and reported that the recipients include Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Leidos, and L3 Harris. The agency will give each one $20 million for the project, which is taking place under its Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor program and will task each company with designing a prototype sensor payload no later than October 31, 2020.

Why is a Hypersonic Missile?

The Department of Defense defines “hypersonic missiles” as missiles that can travel at 3,800 miles per hour–five times the speed of sound–or faster. A missile flying from China at this speed could strike a city in the mainland United States in 100 minutes or less.

There aren’t any hypersonic missiles now in operation, as far as we know. China and Russia are both working on designing their first hypersonics, and the U.S. military itself is aiming to have its first hypersonics ready for deployment by 2022. But Pentagon officials want to be ready for that (maybe near) future time when these missiles have left the drawing board and gone into widespread use.

And they don’t think that our existing missile-shield systems are up to the challenge. Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said in a lecture at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, last August that hypersonic missiles move too fast for our systems to track, or for military units to spring into action and intercept them.

“By the time we can see it on defensive radar systems, it’s nearly too late to close the kill chain,” Griffin said. “In a raid scenario, you can’t just get there from here.”

To be effective, a defense against hypersonics will have to have much longer-range detection capabilities than the current ones have, he added: “We have to see them coming from further out.”

The White House’s Missile Defense Review, which was released back in January, states that such far-seeing capability would be possible with sensor systems up in orbit. The publication calls for deploying sensors above Earth to detect and track hypersonic missiles from anywhere on the globe, stating that space-based sensors would “enjoy a measure of flexibility of movement that is unimpeded by the constraints that geographic limitations impose on terrestrial sensors, and can provide ‘birth to death’ tracking that is extremely advantageous.”

The Space Development Agency, a new Pentagon department that formed earlier this year, will develop a communications network to connect all of these sensors so that they can interact and coordinate their surveillance of sea and land areas down below. These space systems won’t shoot down an incoming missile themselves. But they might alert surface-level ground stations, air squadrons, or naval units, any of which would then deploy missile-intercept systems to kill the missile before it hits its target.

All this interfacing between space- and ground-, air-, or sea-based systems would take extensive coordination and maintenance. Griffin foresees more Pentagon departments joining the effort as it gets underway.

“Dealing with the hypersonic threat is even more of an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary problem than ground missile defense was,” he said.

This missile-tracking project comes after years of increasing worry among U.S. defense officials of resurgent Chinese and Russian military aggression. Although the United States has been engaged in disarmament negotiations with Russia for the last 30 years and signed joint agreements in which Russia and the United States both commit to reducing their arsenals, the United States pulled out of a major agreement–the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty–earlier this year, citing Russia’s refusal to destroy a cruise missile that U.S. officials said violated the treaty. And a report from the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, released back in January, pointed to Chinese military buildups in the South China Sea and other sites as evidence that China aspires to dominate the Pacific and to take on any U.S. or U.S. allies’ defense forces that stand in its way.

That’s in addition to ongoing threats from North Korea, which continues to build and test ballistic-missile launch systems despite ongoing nuclear talks with Washington. And don’t forget Iran, which recently resumed injecting uranium into centrifuges for potential use in nuclear weapons.

The world is arguably becoming a more dangerous place. The planners behind this space-based sensor system seem to think so, and they see Earth-orbiting alert systems as a next-generation safeguard against these looming dangers.

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Rick Docksai is a Department of Defense writer-editor who covers defense, public policy, and science and technology news. He earned a Master's Degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland in 2007.