Northrop Grumman [NOC] said last week its Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) satellite achieved a major milestone last week: tracking a test missile all the way from launch to impact.

Such birth-to-death tracking from space–done as part of the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) effort to use space-based sensors to help with shooting down missiles of all ranges- -is “really the holy grail for missile defense,” said Doug Young, vice president of Missile Defense and Warning programs for Northrop Grumman’s Aerospace Systems sector.

“Birth-to-death tracking again is really a major breakthrough in capability that’s going to revolutionize our ability to protect the nation and our allies,” he said.

Since the STSS demonstration effort launched in 2009, contractor Northrop Grumman has put two infrared-sensor-equipped satellites in orbit that can, while connected to a ground station, travel above the earth 3,000 miles apart and share missile-tracking data, the company said.

“Now we’re what we call fully operational and moving through the test program, with again the most significant event being last week, tracking a missile all the way from its launch to its impact,” Young told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington.

He laid out how last week’s testing, near Hawaii, progressed: an acquisition sensor detected the demonstration of an Aegis Readiness Assessment Vehicle-B (ARAV-B) ballistic- missile target as it took off and launched. A track sensor then took the data and tracked the missile all the way through to impact. The program is intended is to be able to pass such data to an Aegis cruiser at sea that can then target and shoot down a missile.

Northrop Grumman is attempting to do four overarching things, he said, including reducing technology risk for a future operational missile-defense system based on the STSS approach. The other methods are tied to: integrating with the ballistic missile defense system, so sensor data from the satellites is combined with other sensor outputs; proving that the sensor data can be provided to theater missile defenses like the Aegis cruiser; and understanding the “phenomenology” associated with infrared sensors in space, he said.

All that information is intended to be transferred to MDA as it defines the operational system.

“We’re just feeding the data through to the government to support that activity,” Young said.

For STSS in the future, he said, Northrop Grumman hopes to conduct a test where the sensors provide missile data to a Aegis cruiser that then shoots down the missile. Young called that “a more stressing test but one we believe is going to be successful as well.”

The company has an operations-and-support contract with the government for the STSS demonstration effort. It has award fees associated with specific test objectives.

“Our fees have been very good as the satellites have started to really produce the results that they were designed to produce,” Young said.