Spectacular Views of ULA's 75th Atlas-V Launch with SBIRS GEO-4 Missile Defense Satellite

LIFTOFF of the rarely seen Atlas-V 411 variant, headed to space with SBIRS GEO-4. Photo: John Kraus / AmericaSpace

ULA just launched the fourth satellite of the U.S Air Force Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Orbit (SBIRS) program, also known to the Pentagon as the nation’s highest priority space program for preventing nuclear war. Liftoff occurred flawlessly Jan 19 at 7:48pm EST, after a ground issue associated with the Atlas-V rocket’s booster liquid oxygen system scrubbed the first launch attempt Jan 18.

Presented here is our gallery capturing the launch and initial ascent of the mission, flying off Cape Canaveral AFS pad 41 atop a rarely seen ‘411’ variant of ULA’s workhorse Atlas-V with just a single Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-60A solid rocket booster to compliment the rocket’s proven RD-180 engine.

Proven, because the launch of SBIRS GEO-4 also marked the 75th successful launch of ULA’s Atlas-V, which is a pretty incredible track record no matter who you are (results over rhetoric, wink wink). It was also ULA’s second launch of 2018, lifting off just a week after the company launched a classified mission atop a Delta-IV from Vandenberg AFB, CA.


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  Credit: Jeff Seibert for AmericaSpace

 

ULA has only launched their 411 variant four times prior to launching SBIRS GEO-4, having first launched the Astra 1KR communications satellite to orbit, followed by the classified NROL-28 payload in March 2008, a pair of Naval Ocean Surveillance Satellites (NOSS) in April 2011 and NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) in September 2016.

The three previous SBIRS satellites all launched on Atlas-V 401 variants with no solid rocket boosters in May 2011, March 2013 and January 2017, respectively. So why use a rare 411 variant for the fourth satellite?

“For prior missions, this customer preferred to place the expended Centaur in the designated disposal orbit (junkyard, from which stages slowly decay into re-entry),” ULA CEO Tory Bruno noted in a Tuesday, 17 January tweet. “On this flight, the [booster] provides enough energy to allow Centaur to be immediately deorbited.”

LIFTOFF of SBIRS GEO-4 atop a ULA Atlas-V 411 rocket from launch comes 41. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

The $1.2 billion Lockheed Martin SBIRS GEO-4 satellite is a crucial war fighting tool to detect and track missile launches worldwide, providing the U.S. military with timely, reliable and accurate missile warning and infrared surveillance information.

SBIRS spacecraft are directly involved in real time war fighting operations from the moment they become operational, not only because of their ability to deter a missile attack and help decisions on an immediate nuclear response, but also to see and warn of even small rocket powered artillery such as mortars, fired at the U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. That information is now being released to forces on a real-time basis.

The U.S. Air Force’s 460th Space Wing is already talking to GEO-4 too, responding to the Wing’s commands as planned. Signal acquisition was confirmed approximately 37 minutes after the satellite’s launch from Cape Canaveral.

SBIRS GEO-4 heads to orbit atop a ULA Atlas-V 411 rocket. Photo: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

“SBIRS is the nation’s 24-7 global watchman, with infrared eyes ready to detect and deliver early warning and tracking of ballistic missiles. A cornerstone of the nation’s missile defense system, SBIRS is proving even more precise and powerful than expected,” said Tom McCormick, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Overhead Persistent Infrared systems mission area. “Space is a place to do great things, and we’re already improving on SBIRS, upgrading our fifth and sixth SBIRS GEO satellites to our modernized LM 2100 satellite bus at no additional cost to the Air Force. On SBIRS 5 and 6 the Air Force saved $1 billion through improved production and management efficiencies.”

SBIRS’s primary mission is strategic missile warning, but the system can support a wide range of research and development projects across the field of remote sensing, which is the monitoring, observing, and gathering of information on the Earth and atmosphere from space.

“By giving researchers access to this data, our objective is for them to find new, innovative uses for improving situational awareness—whether it is for tactical military missions, natural disasters or even firefighting,” said David Sheridan, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) systems mission area.

SBIRS GEO-4 heads to orbit. Photo Credit: John Kraus / AmericaSpace

The SBIRS spacecraft have four missions:

  • Missile Warning: To spot and calculate impact times and locations for strategic nuclear strikes from Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran or smaller tactical missiles fired at U. S. and allied forces. SBIRS also provides such coverage for Great Britain, France, Australia, and likely also Japan, and to U.S. forces based in South Korea.

    Missile Defense: To guide decision making and employment of Missile Defense interceptors like Ground Based Interceptors based at Eielson AFB near Fairbanks, Alaska, and Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and SM-3 interceptors based on Navy destroyers, and Japanese and Australian destroyers.

    Battlespace Awareness: To use comprehensive IR data to characterize battlespace conditions. In this vein in addition to missiles and impact point calculations, SBIRS are also to detect the especially hot jet engines of airborne military aircraft with hostile intent.

    Technical Intelligence: By reaping huge amounts of data from missile tests made by adversaries. “The SBIRS scanning sensor provides a wide-area surveillance of missile launches and natural phenomena across the Earth, while the staring sensor observes smaller areas of interest with superior sensitivity,” said Dave Sheridan, Lockheed Martin’s SBIRS program manager. The staring sensor specifically provides data on an adversary’s rocket propulsion development in ground tests.

Liftoff of SBIRS GEO-4. Photo Credit: John Kraus / AmericaSpace

Launch of GEO 4, “finalizes the baseline SBIRS program and put worldwide SBIRS geosynchronous capability on orbit,” said Col. Dennis Bythewood, director of the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

However, as reported previously by AmericaSpace Military Space correspondent Craig Covault, the completion of the SBIRS constellation with GEO-4 is far behind schedule and over budget.

For example, the 15,000-lb NAVY Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) cost $611 million, while the 10,000-lb SBIRS GEO satellites cost $1.2 billion a piece.

“The ambitious SBIRS GEO satellite design came to life after years of technical hurdles and cost overruns,” said Aviation Week. “A large rectangular sun shade was added to the design after engineers realized the scanning and staring sensor faces would be exposed to too much heat and glint from the Sun.”

A long exposure from a remote camera of the Atlas-V thundering out of launch complex 41 with SBIRS GEO-4. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

Later, electromagnetic interference problems befuddled designers and delayed the program as did a computer processing timing issue that held up the first GEO launch, for years, said Aviation Week in a late 2015 article.

For the first time, infrared data from the Lockheed Martin satellites for new military and civilian uses at the Air Force’s recently opened data utilization lab in Boulder, Colo.

While SBIRS’s primary mission is strategic missile warning, the system can support a wide range of research and development projects across the field of remote sensing, which is the monitoring, observing, and gathering of information on the Earth and atmosphere from space.

“By giving researchers access to this data, our objective is for them to find new, innovative uses for improving situational awareness—whether it is for tactical military missions, natural disasters or even firefighting,” said David Sheridan, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) systems mission area.

Sunset at Launch Complex 41, where a ULA Atlas-V rocket stands ready to launch to the fourth U.S. Air Force Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Orbit (SBIRS GEO-4) spacecraft Thursday evening. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

The Air Force has seen a growing demand from the military, intelligence, and civil communities, as well as academia, for remote sensing capabilities in recent years. For areas like battlespace awareness, intelligence, and 24/7 tactical alerts, promising solutions developed in the lab will be considered for operational applications at the SBIRS Mission Control Station, OPIR Battlespace Awareness Center at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo.

“In an effort to develop, test and transition new or enhanced capabilities, the data utilization lab will provide an opportunity for users, data consumers and third-party developers to access these sensor feeds—providing an open framework architecture to host new tools, algorithms and processing solutions,” said Lt. Colonel Ross Johnston of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

Along with government and industry teams, academic organizations like the University of Colorado will use the data provided by the lab to facilitate collaboration and support research in areas that include monitoring the Earth’s surface to determine the potential for forest fires or informing critical decisions during active fires.

CLOSEUP of ULA’s Atlas-V 411 lifting off with SBIRS GEO-4. Photo Credit: John Kraus / AmericaSpace

“The benefit of having public-private partnerships is that we can bring together different stakeholders, in addition to doing research, and understand how we can use data from space assets to solve societal issues,” said Scott Palo, associate dean for research at the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. “We can also provide opportunities for students, as well as small and medium-sized businesses, to connect with industry and government and develop a broader vision that we can all build upon.”

ULA has a full plate manifested for the rest of the year, with up to 13 more flights, including eight by the Atlas V, four Delta IVs—including two Heavy launches, one from the Cape and the other from Vandenberg—and the final flight of the long-serving Delta II, which will deliver NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2) into orbit.

ULA will launch a pair of classified missions for the National Reconnaissance Office too, several military communications satellites, the Parker Solar Probe and Mars-bound InSight lander, the first uncrewed and piloted test-flights of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner for Commercial Crew operations and, coming up in March, the next great weather observatory – NOAA’s Geostationary Orbiting Environmental Satellite (GOES)-S.

 

 

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