The U.S. Air Force is poised to double its geosynchronous orbit space situational awareness and satellite-to-satellite imaging with the planned Aug. 19 predawn launch of two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites on board a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Medium 4,2 vehicle with two solid rocket boosters.
The mission seal on the Delta IV fairing includes three owls, two of them holding a streamer in Latin that reads “Videmus Omnia,” which translates to “We See All”—a warning to Russians and Chinese that any attempt to physically attack U.S. satellites will be detected by the U.S. GSSAP (pronounced “GeeSap”) spacecraft.
Liftoff of the 206-foot-tall, 1.1 million lb-thrust Delta IV is set for 12:47 a.m. EDT at the opening of a 65-minute launch window that closes at 1:52 a.m. EDT. The mission will fly from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
The satellites will not be released from the Delta’s second stage until about six hours after launch. The mission is designated Air Force Space Command (AFSPC-6).
The oxygen/hydrogen Rocketdyne Aerojet RS-68A engine for the first stage will generate 702,000 lbs of liftoff thrust, while each Orbital ATK GEM 60 solid rocket booster will add another 197,500 lbs thrust for the first 93 seconds of flight.
The first stage will continue to fire until its cutoff at 3 minutes, 58 seconds into the flight, followed by first stage separation 8 seconds later.
Ignition of the second stage at 4 minutes, 20 seconds will be followed by payload fairing separation at 4 minutes, 30 seconds.
Launch commentary will then cease to avoid providing clues on the trajectory to Russian and Chinese intelligence services.
The twin Orbital ATK-built Air Force Space Command satellites will join two others launched on July 28, 2014.
Mounted side by side under the two halves of the 13-foot-wide, nearly 40-foot-long launch shroud, the AFSPC-6 satellites will be boosted directly into geosynchronous orbit. They will remain attached to the Delta IV’s 25,000 lb-thrust Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10B-2 cryogenic upper stage until they reach about 22,300 miles altitude.
The two Orbital ATK GSSAP-3 and 4 spacecraft will join GSSAP-1 and GSSAP-2 to drift above and below the geosynchronous arc at about 22,300 miles altitude, where they can image and eavesdrop on primarily Chinese and Russian spacecraft. The new USAF satellites are capable of proximity operations where, with great care, they will be maneuvered around individual Russian and Chinese satellites.
There are currently about 600 satellites in geosynchronous orbit, including operational and backup as well as expired spacecraft. GSSAP controllers at the 50th Space Wing, Schriever AFB, Colo., and the Intelligence Community as a whole, want to look at them all to understand if there are any collision threats posed by these spacecraft as they move about in an internationally assigned box about 50 miles on a side.
The most key GSSAP mission, however, is to make sure no Russian and Chinese spacecraft —or their orbiting ASAT systems—pose threats to U.S. and allied satellites in geosynchronous orbit. They include:
—American and allied military communications satellites
—National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Elint/Sigint eavesdropping satellites
— Air Force missile warning spacecraft
—NASA and NRO relay satellites
—NASA and NOAA scientific satellites
— U. S. and allied civilian communications spacecraft
According to the Air Force the GSSAP project was developed “to achieve an operational space-based situational awareness capability operating in the near-geosynchronous orbit regime to deliver data to the U.S. Strategic Command.”
GASSP operates in a team effort “with ground-based telescopes and radars to keep track of space objects and identify potential threats to U.S. satellites,” the Air Force said.
According to Spaceflight 101.com, “The project was developed covertly and the identity of the satellites was a secret until the program was declassified in early 2015.”
The first two satellites launched were to undergo a year of testing, but were pressed into service early on a secret mission to image a specific spacecraft, either foreign or U.S.
Air Force General John Hyten, commander of Space Command, told an Air Force Assn. meeting that when pressed into service early, the satellites “performed remarkably.”
“The users that requested the information are extremely pleased with the pictures we gave them,” Hyten said. “The pictures are truly eye-watering,” he told an Air Force Association press conference. “It’s amazing, you don’t often get to see satellites flying in space.” Other Air Force sources said centimeter scale resolution is necessary for examination of satellite antennas and sensors.
As initially conceived the Air Force believed the first pair would fly with one satellite above and the other below the geosynchronous plane. But the SeeSat-L satellite tracking group, headed by Canadian Ted Molczan, has found sometimes both operational satellites have also operated below the geosynchronous belt. Molczan also said sometimes the spacecraft have operated in tandem and other times while widely separated.
He said the GSSAP-1 satellite has been drifting at a velocity of one-half to a full degree per day, while GSSAP-2 has flown more slowly at one-fourth to one-third of a degree per day, occasionally pausing for observations at a single location.
Each GSSAP was developed from the Orbital ATK GEOStar-1 bus that weighs 1,102 lbs, with the capability to carry an additional 330 lb-sensor payload, including high resolution imaging sensors and possibly top secret eavesdropping electronics. This means that each spacecraft with the bus and payload combined weighs about 1,430 lbs.
These are extremely high performance satellites with large propellant tanks, giving each satellite 3,281 fps of maneuvering capability. The GEOStar bus with “precision pointing, knowledge, and agility combined with a large delta-v capacity make it a premier spacecraft for small GEO missions,” says an Orbital ATK marketing document.