After waiting for cloudy weather, the US Space Force on Friday launched two satellites atop an Atlas 5 rocket to test ballistic and hypersonic missile early warning and tracking technology and to deploy a maneuverable spacecraft carrying a unknown number of classified payloads.
Already a day late due to stormy weather, the $1.1 billion USSF-12 mission got off to a smashing start at 7:15 p.m. EDT when its United Launch Alliance rocket blasted to life with 2.3 million pounds of thrust from its first floor. motor and four strap boosters.
Trailing a spectacular jet of fiery exhaust, the 196-foot-tall rocket rapidly climbed from Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, breaking through low clouds and rapidly disappearing from view as it receded eastward over the Atlantic Ocean.
Eleven minutes later, the Aerojet Rocketdyne engine powering the rocket’s second stage completed the first of three planned firings designed to place the two satellites into a circular orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. The trip was expected to take about six hours and end early Saturday with the deployment of the satellites from the Centaur second stage.
Satellites at such geosynchronous altitudes take 24 hours to complete an orbit and thus rotate in parallel with the Earth, allowing continuous hemispherical views and enabling the use of fixed terrestrial antennas to relay data and commands.
The Wide Field of View Testbed, or WFOV, satellite includes an infrared sensor developed by L3Harris that will be evaluated for its ability to detect and track ballistic missiles and more maneuverable hypersonic weapons.
The second satellite, known as USSF-12 Ring, is a kind of space truck, equipped with six ports to accommodate instruments, sensors or small deployable satellites. What might be on board for the USSF-12 mission has not been revealed.
As for the WFOV satellite, “Space Force’s number one mission is the missile warning and tracking mission,” said Colonel Brian Denaro of Space Systems Command. The USSF-12 mission “is an important first step in this priority mission area.”
The WFOV spacecraft is not intended to serve as an operational early warning satellite. Instead, it will test the new sensor system and techniques for processing the massive amounts of data it will generate to help “inform” designers of tracking satellite systems.
“The threat is certainly evolving at an unprecedented rapid rate that we’ve never seen before,” Denaro said during a pre-launch briefing. “We’re looking at a range of targets and missiles in the hypersonic realm that are much more maneuverable, they’re weaker, they’re harder to see.”
“And that requires a new approach to how we detect and then track all of these missiles as they fly,” Denaro added.
Space Force is already developing next-generation aerial persistent infrared (OPIR) satellites that will eventually replace the current space infrared system’s early warning satellites, or SBIRS.
Lockheed Martin has a $4.9 billion contract to build three geosynchronous OPIR satellites while Northrop Grumman is supplying two low-altitude polar satellites under a separate $2.4 billion contract.