Space force

The Atlas V rocket launches 2 surveillance satellites for the US Space Force

A powerful Atlas V rocket from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched two “neighborhood watch” satellites for the United States Space Force on Friday (January 21).

the Atlas V lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) on Friday, carrying two identical Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites into orbit.

If all goes according to plan, the rocket will deploy the two satellites approximately six hours and 45 minutes after launch. The GSSAP craft will then head to its final destination, a near-geosynchronous orbit about 22,300 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the equator.

Related: What is the US Space Force?

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness program satellites for the US Space Force on January 21, 2022.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness program satellites for the US Space Force on January 21, 2022. (Image credit: ULA)

The satellites are the fifth and sixth GSSAP spacecraft to take flight. ULA launched the first four on two different flights, one in 2014 and the other in 2016. Both of those previous missions used Delta IV Medium rockets, which were retired in 2019.

GSSAP satellites help US Space Command keep tabs on traffic in geosynchronous orbit, where the orbital speed of a satellite corresponds to the rotational speed of the Earth. It’s a popular perch for weather, communications and surveillance satellites, as spacecraft are constantly “flying over” the same part of the planet (the same longitude, anyway).

The GSSAP satellites “provide neighborhood watch services in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), enhancing flight safety for all space nations operating in this orbit,” ULA officials said. written in a job description.

“Better knowledge of the position of satellites at this distance improves the ability to warn a spacecraft owner/operator if another object is expected to approach too closely and create a hazardous situation,” they said. they added. “GSSAP data will uniquely contribute to accurate and timely orbital predictions, improving our knowledge of the GEO environment and further enabling spaceflight safety, including satellite collision avoidance.”

Friday’s flight was the first-ever for an Atlas V in the 511 configuration — one that features a 5-meter-wide (16.5-foot) payload fairing, single-engine Centaur upper stage and solid rocket booster attached to the side of the rocket.

The 511 was the only Atlas V variant that had yet to fly, ULA representatives wrote in the mission description. But a close cousin to that version – the 411, which sports a 4m-wide (13.2ft) payload fairing – has been flown half a dozen times, they added.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. EDT on January 21 with news of the successful liftoff.

Mike Wall is the author of “The low(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom Or on Facebook.