ULA’s Atlas V launch will take Air Force missile tracking satellite into orbit

By Kendra Chamberlain

The latest satellite addition to the US Air Force’s space based Infrared system (SBIRS) will launch this week from Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V rocket. The $1.2 billion geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) satellite, made by Lockheed Martin, is the third installment to the Air Force’s surveillance system that’s designed to track enemy missile launches.

UPDATE: The ULA Atlas V rocket successfully launched and delivered its payload SBIRS satellite into orbit on January 20.

The GEO Flight 3 satellite will engage in infrared surveillance as part of a fleet of satellites equipped with scanning sensors that transmit data to ground stations as part of a missile warning system. That system is designed to detect missile launches, support ballistic missile defense, expand technical intelligence gathering and bolster situational awareness on the battlefield.

The Air Force’s SBIRS is a next-generation evolution of the Cold War-era orbital monitoring system, called the Defense Support Program, that monitored intercontinental ballistic missiles. The SBIRS GEO satellites orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth. Because the GEO 3 satellite uses a geostationary orbit, the orbital period of the satellite matches the Earth’s rotation, allowing the satellite to keep its position fixed relative to its sensor targets on Earth.

SBIRS satellites are better able to identify faint objects and track short-range missiles. The SBIRS satellites are also equipped with “staring” instruments that can zero-in on specific target areas and collected extra data.

The SBIRS satellites have scanning and staring capabilities. Image source: Lockheed Martin
The SBIRS satellites have scanning and staring capabilities. Image source: Lockheed Martin

Some of the data collected by the satellites will be made available to “qualified” civilian enterprise and academia for research and development in remote sensing fields. That data will become available through the Air Forces’ new data-sharing lab in Boulder, Colorado.

The GEO Flight 3 satellite was encapsulated last week in preparation for the launch on 19 January. The encapsulation process involves sealing the satellite into its protective launch vehicle fairing, and ensuring that the fairing is aligned flush with the surface of the rocket — to make the nose cone of the rocket as aerodynamic as possible.

“With its launch, the addition of GEO Flight 3 into the constellation will greatly enhance SBIRS’ ability to provide resilient, space-based infrared surveillance capabilities for decades to come,” said said David Sheridan, VP of Lockheed Martin’s Overhead Persistent Infrared systems mission area, in a statement.

Mission patch for SBIRS. Image source: US Air Force
Mission patch for SBIRS. Image source: US Air Force

Lockheed-Martin is the primary contractor for SBIRS satellites, the first of which took its position in May 2011, followed by the launch of GEO Flight 2 in 2013. Its next satellite to join the constellation, the GEO Flight 4, will launch later in 2017; the company is building two more satellites (GEO-5 and GEO-6), which will incorporate the new modernized A2100 spacecraft which Lockheed-Martin says will dramatically reduce costs and cycle times while increasing the potential to incorporate future advanced sensor suites.

The SBIRS development team is led by the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, located in the Los Angeles Air Force Base in California. Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems is the payload integrator, and built the sensor suite on the satellite.

The ULA Atlas V rocket is scheduled for launch Thursday, 19 January, at 7:46 pm EST (0046 GMT).

About Kendra R Chamberlain

Freelance journalist writing about environment, clean & green tech, smart infrastructure, IoT and circular economy. Co-founder and contributing editor of The Downlink.

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