SBIRS GEO-2 Flies in Spectacular Early-Evening Atlas V Launch

The U.S. Air Force's second Space-Based Infrared System destined for Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (SBIRS GEO-2) roars away from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 5:21 p.m. EST, 19 March 2013. Photo Credit: Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studios

The U.S. Air Force’s second Space-Based Infrared System destined for Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (SBIRS GEO-2) roars away from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 5:21 p.m. EST, 19 March 2013. Photo Credit: Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studios

The Pentagon’s goal of having an advanced network of infrared missile and early-warning satellites, fully operational in geosynchronous orbit, more than 22,000 miles above our heads, drew a step closer to reality this evening, with the spectacular liftoff of United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas V 401 at 5:21 p.m. EDT. The mission was staged from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and occurred precisely on time at the start of a 40-minute “window.” Aboard the Atlas was SBIRS GEO-2, the second member of the multi-billion-dollar Space-Based Infrared System to be destined for Geosynchronous Earth Orbit.

According to the Pentagon and SBIRS’ prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, the system represents the latest effort to replace the outdated Defense Support Program (DSP) of infrared early-warning satellites, whose ancestry stretches back to the early 1970s. It is confidently expected that SBIRS will enable the United States’ space surveillance needs for at least the next two decades, with specific focuses including advanced early warning, missile defense, and battlespace characterization. In its final form, it will comprise at least four satellites in geosynchronous orbit, together with sensors hosted aboard two others in highly-elliptical orbits (HEO-1 and 2)—which were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in June 2006 and March 2008—and an expansive ground-based command, control, and data-processing network. Following numerous delays, caused by software malfunctions and other hardware deficiencies, the first dedicated Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO-1) SBIRS was successfully lofted from Cape Canaveral, atop an Atlas V 401, in May 2011.

“The ULA team is honored to serve a pivotal role in placing this critical capability in orbit for our women and men serving around the world and protecting our freedom,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Mission Operations. “From nearly two years ago when we began production of the launch vehicle, through today’s successful mission delivery, this very strong and well-integrated government and industry team has ensured that mission success remains the highest priority at every step in the process.”

Air Force sources have acknowledged that the SBIRS GEO-1 satellite performed better than expected during its year-long orbital testing phase in 2012, and it demonstrated a sensor-pointing accuracy “nine times more precise than required” and was capable of “detecting targets 25 percent dimmer than required with an intensity measurement 60 percent more accurate than specification.” However, the website NASASpaceflight.com noted that “a defect in its communications system” was discovered during operational testing in November 2012, and this may delay its entry into full service. According to Space.com, GEO-1 “should be fully accepted into the operational fleet later this year,” raising the possibility that today’s GEO-2 may enter operations ahead of its older sibling.

Pictured during pre-flight inspection and closeout, the SBIRS GEO-2 spacecraft will enable the United States' space surveillance needs for at least the next two decades. Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

Pictured during pre-flight inspection and closeout, the SBIRS GEO-2 spacecraft will enable the United States’ space surveillance needs for at least the next two decades. Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

Processing of SBIRS GEO-2 has gone exceptionally smoothly and the satellite was encapsulated into its two-piece (“bisector”) payload fairing on 4 March, ahead of stacking atop the Atlas V last week. The rocket, which today enjoyed its 37th mission and continued a proud tradition with a near-perfect launch record, flew in its “401” configuration, with a 4-meter (13-foot) payload fairing, no strap-on boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage. This is identical in physical appearance to the Atlas Vs used for the launch of NASA’s latest Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-K) from Cape Canaveral in January, as well as last month’s Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) from Vandenberg. Since its maiden voyage in August 2002, the Atlas V’s sole blemish was a Centaur problem in June 2007, which produced a lower than intended orbit for its classified National Reconnaissance Office primary payload. Capped-off by the payload shroud, the 401 stood almost 19 stories tall and presented an impressive sight, backdropped by Cape Canaveral’s marshy landscape.

At the formal Launch Readiness Review last weekend, Air Force meteorologists predicted a 70-percent chance of acceptable weather conditions at T-zero. With the bulbous payload shroud in place, the giant rocket was rolled out to the SLC-41 pad surface early this week and Launch Day dawned fine, with east-south-easterly winds gusting at 15 knots and no change in the meteorologists’ estimates. With ten minutes remaining, at 5:12 p.m. EST, controllers worked through the final stages of a problem-free countdown and completed their final “Go/No Go” polls for launch. The consensus was a “Go” to proceed. A final status check of the rocket, upper stage, and payload at T-25 seconds was met with clipped confirmation that all was ready: “Go Atlas, Go Centaur, Go SBIRS.” The Atlas’ Russian-built RD-180 engine—with a thrust yield of 860,000 pounds—roared to life at T-2.7 seconds, burning liquid oxygen and a refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1.” Liftoff occurred precisely on time at 5:21:00.219 p.m. EST.

Climb-out of the Atlas from SLC-41 commenced at T+1.1 seconds, beginning a seemingly slow climb for 16 seconds by the pencil-like vehicle, after which the avionics of the Centaur commanded a pitch, roll, and yaw maneuver. This established the vehicle onto the proper 98.82-degree flight azimuth, following a due-east trajectory to inject SBIRS GEO-2 into orbit. Impressive “rocket-cam” imagery traced the picture-perfect ascent, revealing the steadily expanding Florida coastline as the Atlas climbed ever higher into the rarefied atmosphere. As expected, the RD-180 burned hot and hard for a little over four minutes, shutting down at T+243 seconds, to be followed by the separation of the 41-foot-long Centaur and the payload.

To support the deployment of SBIRS GEO-2 into its correct orbital “slot,” the upper stage performed two lengthy firings of its 22,300-pound-thrust RL-10A engine. The first burn, lasting 11 minutes, placed the combo into a “parking” orbit, after which the two-piece payload fairing was be jettisoned, exposing the satellite to the space environment for the first time. Both events were spectacularly illustrated in the rocket-cam imagery. A nine-minute coasting phase was followed by a second burn, lasting nearly four minutes, which culminated in a scheduled engine cut-off at 5:49 p.m. EST.

Glorious view of the SBIRS GEO-2 liftoff. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

Glorious view of the SBIRS GEO-2 liftoff. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

The SBIRS-Centaur duo then entered a 15-minute coast, ahead of the separation of the spacecraft, which occurred at 6:04 p.m. EST, whilst over the Indian Ocean, in sight of the Diego Garcia tracking station. According to preliminary data, SBIRS GEO-2’s initial orbit at the moment of separation achieved a perigee (or “low” point) of 98 miles and an apogee (or “high” point) of 19,403 miles, inclined 22.2 degrees to the equator, which was very close to pre-launch estimates. “We understand the important role SBIRS plays in our national security architecture and the entire SBIRS team has worked tirelessly to prepare this satellite for a successful launch,” said Jeff Smith, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) mission area. “The dedication and talent of this SBIRS team is remarkable and we are keenly focused on delivering mission success for the warfighter.”

Today’s triumphant launch marks the culmination of a long and tortured development process, which saw the SBIRS project costs literally balloon from an estimated $4 billion to over $17 billion. According to General Accounting Office auditors, and reported by Defense Industry Daily in February 2013, it suffered from “immature technologies, unclear requirements, unstable funding, underestimated software complexity, poor oversight and other problems.” The U.S. Air Force’s apparent lack of alternatives for an urgent national requirement to have an advanced surveillance system in orbit to monitor ballistic missile launches and nuclear events apparently prevented SBIRS’ cancellation. Originally scheduled to fly a decade ago, only now is the project gradually reaching fruition.

The SBIRS GEO-2 spacecraft is encapsulated within its two-piece ('bisector') payload fairing, ahead of stacking atop the Atlas V 401 for today's launch. Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

The SBIRS GEO-2 spacecraft is encapsulated within its two-piece (“bisector”) payload fairing, ahead of stacking atop the Atlas V 401 for today’s launch. Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

SBIRS GEO-2 is expected to enhance the Pentagon’s surveillance capabilities yet further. Speaking in August 2011, Col. Scott Larrimore, chief of the U.S. Air Force’s SBIRS Space Division, described these capabilities as “much needed.” They include highly sophisticated scanning and staring sensors, with improved infrared sensitivity and the scope to provide a wide-area (“scanning”) surveillance of missile launches and natural phenomena across the planet, as well as observing smaller regions (“staring”) with superior sensitivity and reliability. Currently, Lockheed Martin’s SBIRS contract encompasses four HEO payloads, four GEO satellites, and ground-based assets, although the option exists for future fifth and sixth GEO missions.

United Launch Alliance, for whom the launch of this important surveillance sentinel marks their third mission of the year, are entirely aware of its importance. According to Jim Sponnick, ULA’s vice president for Mission Operations, the new satellite “will provide the nation with significantly improved missile warning and defense, battlespace awareness and technical intelligence.” Its sensors are considerably more flexible than the earlier DSP, and their capacity to detect short-wave and expanded mid-wave infrared signals enable SBIRS to perform a broader set of tasks. The satellite network will be operated by the U.S. Air Force Space Command.

“We are proud to partner with the U.S. Air Force on the SBIRS program to deliver highly reliable infrared surveillance capabilities for strategic and tactical users across the defense and intelligence community,” said Jeff Smith, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) mission area. “Thanks to the unmatched expertise of the entire government and industry SBIRS team, we are confident this satellite will meet or exceed expectations and play a pivotal role in our national security for years to come.”

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