Space force

ULA launches US Space Force’s latest SBIRS missile warning satellite – Spaceflight Now

ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Space Force StationCredit: United Launch Alliance

The dawn departure of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral sent the US Army’s latest Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellite aloft, a $1.2 billion mission billed by Space Force as a springboard to a new generation of more sensitive sentinels in the skies.

The Atlas 5 launched from Pad 41 of Space Force Station Cape Canaveral at 06:29 a.m. EDT (1029 GMT) Thursday to begin a three-hour ascent before launching the SBIRS GEO 6 missile warning satellite in orbit.

Two strap-on solid rocket boosters from Northrop Grumman and a Russian-made RD-180 main engine propelled the Atlas 5 from the launch pad with 1.6 million pounds of thrust. The 194-foot-tall (59-meter) rocket soared into the sunlight as it reached the upper atmosphere, giving its exhaust plume an orange hue against the deep blue sky.

The Atlas 5 jettisoned its thrusters about two minutes after liftoff, then shut down its kerosene-fueled RD-180 engine about four minutes into the mission. The rocket’s Centaur upper stage ignited its RL10 engine for the first of three burns to accelerate into a preliminary parking orbit. A payload fairing that protected the SBIRS GEO 6 satellite during the early launch phases released like a flap during the first Centaur burn.

Two more firings from the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 upper stage engine guided the Space Force payload into an elliptical or oval transfer orbit. The Atlas 5’s guidance computer targeted an orbit with an altitude between 3,242 miles (5,218 kilometers) and 21,956 miles (35,335 kilometers), with an inclination angle of 17.63 degrees per relative to the equator.

ULA confirmed good separation from the SBIRS GEO 6 satellite at around 9:30 a.m. EDT (1330 GMT), about three hours after liftoff, completing the 95th flight of an Atlas 5 rocket and the fifth Atlas 5 launch of the year.

“The successful launch of SBIRS GEO 6 is a great achievement for the entire team and the nation,” said Col. Brian Denaro, Space Sensing Program Manager at Space Systems Command. “Our near competitors continue to develop missile technology that burns faster and is weaker, as well as harder to detect. The US Space Force’s SBIRS constellation provides the world’s most advanced capability to detect missile launches earlier and track these threats more accurately.

The SBIRS GEO 6 satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, will use onboard propulsion to maneuver into a circular geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) above the equator. In this orbit, the spacecraft will have a fixed geographical coverage area because it will circle the Earth at the same rate of rotation of the planet.

Once the new satellite is operational next year, the Space Force’s SBIRS fleet will have six operational spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit, providing global infrared coverage to detect heat plumes from missile launches. There are also SBIRS infrared payloads hosted on classified spy satellites in highly elliptical orbits with coverage over the North Pole, and the military continues to operate the missile support program’s former missile warning satellites at defense, which the SBIRS program has replaced.

The SBIRS and DSP satellites provide the first warning of a missile launch that could target the American homeland, allied nations or deployed military forces.

“As the space domain has evolved from a benign environment to a contested and crowded one, SBIRS GEO 6 provides another critical eye to detect, track and defend against ballistic and hypersonic missile threats, enhancing collection capabilities data and battlespace awareness,” Denaro said in a conference call with reporters ahead of the launch of SBIRS GEO 6. “This mission enhances our ability to detect missile launches earlier and track those targets more accurately.”

Northrop Grumman supplied the infrared sensors for each SBIRS satellite.

One of the infrared cameras on each SBIRS GEO satellite scans the spacecraft coverage area in a U-shaped pattern. Another infrared sensor can target specific regions of interest.

“There’s a fixed sensor that can be pointed and fixed at a fixed point,” said Michael Corriea, Lockheed Martin vice president overseeing the SBIRS program. “So, for example, you can ask him to watch China because maybe there was something you wanted to look at in a particular region, or in North Korea.

“Both sensors are infrared sensors, so they detect the heat signature of the rocket, not only the initial heat of the rocket launch, but also as the rockets pass through the atmosphere, they heat up and heat up and we can check through that heat signature as well,” Corriea said.

“SBIRS GEO 6, along with the other SBIRS satellites, basically has four missions,” Corriea said. “The first is missile warning. It has scanning and attaching sensors that can see the Earth and detect a launch and then, using algorithms, determine where that missile is going to land. So it’s able to detect and alert missiles, then notify decision makers or residents of the United States of an impending attack to take appropriate action.”

The first SBIRS payload into an elliptical orbit was launched in 2006, and the Army launched the first SBIRS satellite into geosynchronous orbit in 2011. The Army launched 23 older-design DSP missile warning satellites between 1970 and 2007.

This illustration of the SBIRS GEO 6 satellite separating from the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas 5 rocket is from a ULA mission animation. Credit: United Launch Alliance

SBIRS satellites also provide data to intelligence analysts and military forces.

“As Russia, China and other countries build and test new missiles, sensor data (SBIRS) can be collected on these new missiles and the intelligence community can do an analysis of what these missiles are, what their capabilities are or how they work,” Corriea said. “And then the fourth and final part of the SBIRS mission is that it really helps with battlespace awareness. The cameras are sensitive enough to be able to observe This data can be provided to operators in the field, so that they can understand what is happening and have a better knowledge of the battlefield.

The infrared sensitivity provided by SBIRS satellites can also detect the heat signature of objects as they re-enter the atmosphere and burn up. SBIRS infrared data has also been useful in detecting and locating forest fires.

The SBIRS GEO 6 satellite was built at Lockheed Martin’s manufacturing and testing facilities in Sunnyvale, Calif., and delivered to Cape Canaveral earlier this year for launch preparations. When filled with maneuvering propellant for orbit climb and station keeping, the spacecraft weighed approximately 10,700 pounds (4,850 kilograms) in launch configuration.

With the Space Force fleet expected to soon have six SBIRS satellites in geosynchronous orbit, as well as an undetermined number of aging DSP satellites, officials said the missile warning network was in good condition until a new generation of infrared sensing platforms is ready for launch.

With overlapping coverage around the world, multiple SBIRS or DSP satellites can often detect and track a missile, giving military operators a better idea of ​​its trajectory.

“We have satellites that are up there, and when it’s absolutely optimized is when we have stereo coverage, in other words, there’s overlapping coverage,” Colonel Daniel said. Walter, senior materiel chief for Space Systems Command’s Strategic Missile Warning Acquisition Program. “When you get multiple looks on a single launch, it really helps with the accuracy and assurance of (tracking) that launch.”

Lockheed Martin is building three next-generation aerial persistent infrared, or OPIR, satellites that will be positioned in geosynchronous orbit. The OPIR spacecraft for geosynchronous orbit will be built on the same platform as the SBIRS GEO 5 and 6 satellites, but will fly with improved infrared sensors. The first of the next-generation geosynchronous satellites is expected to launch in the second half of 2025, Corriea said.

The Space Force has contracted with Northrop Grumman to build two OPIR satellites to be launched into highly elliptical polar orbits to provide missile warning coverage over the North Pole.

Artist’s impression of the SBIRS GEO 6 satellite in orbit, with its solar panels deployed. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The SBIRS GEO 6 mission was the ninth and final flight of an Atlas 5 rocket in the “421” vehicle configuration, with two strapped solid-fuel boosters and a tapered payload fairing 4 meters (13 ft) in diameter . ULA is phasing out the Atlas 5 rocket and the Delta 4 rocket family. Both rockets will be replaced by the new Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle, which ULA says is cheaper and more capable than the Atlas and Delta rocket fleets.

The Vulcan Centaur will also be powered by U.S.-made main engines produced by Blue Origin, replacing the Russian RD-180 on the Atlas 5. There are 21 Atlas 5 missions remaining in ULA’s launch log after launch. of SBIRS GEO 6. According to ULA all of the RD-180 engines required for the remaining Atlas 5 flights were delivered to the United States from Russia.

All but one of the remaining Atlas 5 missions will fly with a larger version of the payload fairing.

ULA’s next launch is scheduled to take off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, where a Delta 4-Heavy rocket will send a US government spy satellite into orbit. The next Atlas 5 launch is scheduled for late September from Cape Canaveral with a pair of commercial communications satellites for SES.

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