A billion-dollar improved and cyber-ruggedized satellite to support the U.S. military’s missile defense systems entered orbit from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday at the tip of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
Hosting a suite of sophisticated heat-seeking sensors, the Space Force’s Fifth Space Infrared System, or SBIRS, lifted off from pad 41 on the Florida Space Coast on an Atlas 5 rocket at 1:37 p.m. EDT (5:37 p.m. GMT ) Tuesday.
The infrared payload of SBIRS satellites can detect hot exhaust plumes from missile launches around the world, giving the United States and Allied forces an early warning of an attack. Heading toward an orbital pole more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) above the equator, the SBIRS GEO 5 satellite launched on Monday launched further improvements over the previous block of four SBIRS satellites.
“The SBIRS capability truly remains a guardian in orbit for us against global ballistic missile threats,” said Col. Erin Gulden, mission director for the SBIRS GEO 5 mission at the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, which manages the acquisition of military satellites.
The ULA canceled a launch attempt on Monday after a faulty temperature sensor caused problems during rocket refueling preparations, but Tuesday’s countdown passed with few problems. The only minor technical issue on Tuesday came when ULA attempted to complete the first stage of the Atlas 5 with liquid oxygen, but officials quickly fixed that issue with just seven minutes late.
The 194-foot-tall (59-meter) Atlas 5 rocket, weighing some 950,000 pounds, set a Russian-made RD-180 main engine on fire about three seconds before takeoff. As the countdown reached zero, two solid strap rocket thrusters fired to send the Atlas 5 into a clear afternoon sky above the Sunshine State.
Heading east over the Atlantic Ocean, the Atlas 5 exceeded the speed of sound in 47 seconds, sweeping an exhaust plume from its solid rocket boosters, which generated about half of the 1.6 million pounds of thrust pushing the rocket through the atmosphere.
The twin boosters manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne went out and were jettisoned approximately two minutes after takeoff, and the Atlas first-stage kerosene-fueled RD-180 main engine shut down approximately four minutes after the start of the flight. mission. The bronze first-stage thruster then fired retro-rockets to throw themselves from the Atlas 5’s Centaur upper stage, which ignited an RL10 engine burning liquid hydrogen.
The RL10 engine, also manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne, produced nearly 24,000 pounds of thrust for approximately 10½ minutes to reach a preliminary parking orbit.
The Centaur upper stage then released two suitcase-sized Technology Demonstration Orbiter secondary payloads called TDO 3 and TDO 4 for the US Air Force Academy. Military officials said the two small satellites were carrying experimental payloads, but they didn’t reveal any additional details.
A second Centaur upper stage fire lasting nearly three and a half minutes brought the SBIRS GEO 5 spacecraft into orbit closer to the satellite’s operating position.
The ULA confirmed a successful and on-target deployment of the 10,700-pound (4,850 kilograms) spacecraft nearly 43 minutes after take-off. With Tuesday’s launch, ULA has completed 144 successful launches in as many attempts since the company was founded in 2006 as a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Lockheed Martin, who built the SBIRS GEO 5 satellite in Sunnyvale, Calif., Confirmed that ground crews established a communications link with the new spacecraft after launch on Tuesday.
The SBIRS GEO 5 satellite will use its own propulsion system to fly from its current elongated transfer orbit to reach a circular geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles above Earth. Once in this orbit, ground operators will test the satellite’s infrared payload before approving SBIRS GEO 5 to enter operational service for the military.
The speed of the satellite will be fixed with the speed of the Earth’s rotation, giving the craft’s infrared warning sensors a constant view of the same part of the planet.
The new satellite differs from the first four SBIRS GEO satellites, introducing an improved spacecraft design that Lockheed Martin calls the “battle bus”. Lockheed Martin built the fifth and sixth SBIRS GEO satellites using its new LM 2100 platform, which the company says is the result of an “internally funded, multi-year modernization initiative.”
In a pre-launch press briefing, Gulden said that the “enhanced resilience” of the SBIRS GEO 5 and GEO 6 satellites will “expand national intelligence gathering” and improve the military’s situational awareness.
“The need for SBIRS systems has never been more critical,” said Tom McCormick, SBIRS program manager at Lockheed Martin. “The threat of ballistic missile technology is spreading around the world.”
McCormick said SBIRS satellites detected and tracked more than 1,000 missile launches around the world in 2020.
“With missile early warning, the SBIRS infrared detection capability serves as a spear tip, or ringtone, that a launch has taken place and something is coming,” said McCormick. “SBIRS data informs many of our country’s defense systems, which together form a chain of protective missile destruction to defend our nation and our armed forces.”
According to Lockheed Martin, the LM 2100 battle bus is designed with cyber threat toughening, with additional power for spacecraft and improved propulsion and electronics. The modular design incorporates common components to streamline manufacturing and can more easily accommodate new types of sensors to meet innovation and new military requirements.
The LM 2100 battle bus will also be used by the next generation of missile warning satellites that Lockheed Martin is building for the Space Force to replace the SBIRS fleet. The next generation of GPS navigation satellites, slated for launch in 2026, will also use the battle bus platform.
The latest SBIRS GEO satellite, GEO 6, is expected to be launched on an Atlas 5 rocket in 2022. The first next-generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellite, or OPIR, will be launched in 2025 to begin replacing SBIRS satellites.
Northrop Grumman builds infrared sensors on SBIRS satellites.
The SBIRS constellation includes a minimum of four SBIRS craft stationed in geosynchronous orbit and at least two infrared payloads in elliptical orbits aboard top secret National Reconnaissance Office spy satellites, providing polar coverage. The last two SBIRS satellites, scheduled for launch this year and next year, will allow the fleet to be replenished.
Each set of infrared instruments on geosynchronous satellites includes observation and scanning sensors designed to provide visibility over an entire hemisphere, while allowing ground operators to focus the craft’s gaze on hot spots such as the North Korea.
The Army’s first SBIRS satellite was launched into geosynchronous orbit in 2011, following a series of Defense Support Program early warning satellites that provided missile launch data to military commanders at from the 1970s.
The five SBIRS GEO satellites were launched on Atlas 5 rockets. The rocket assigned to the SBIRS GEO 5 mission used an extra strong rocket thruster – SBIRS GEO 4 launched on an Atlas 5 with a single strap motor – providing additional thrust to help put the spacecraft into an orbit slightly closer to the final satellite operation. boom in geosynchronous orbit.
“SBIRS GEO 5 is the most advanced missile warning satellite built,” said McCormick. “With the launch of every SBIRS vehicle, we are improving our national security posture.”
Tuesday’s mission marked the 16th orbital launch from the Cape Canaveral Space Station or neighboring Kennedy Space Center so far this year. But it was the first launch from Florida this year by ULA, after 15 flights by rival launch company SpaceX to start 2021.
The ULA launched a national security mission earlier this year from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
The rate of launches from Florida’s Space Coast starting in 2021 has exceeded the number of launches at this point in the year since the dawn of the space age.
The next Cape Canaveral launch is scheduled for May 26, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will carry the next batch of Starlink Internet satellites into orbit.
The United Launch Alliance’s next mission is scheduled for June 23, when an Atlas 5 rocket will launch two military spacecraft, each carrying multiple experimental payloads for the Space Force and NASA.
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