As U.S./Russian intelligence controversies swirl between the two countries, a team of Russian rocket technicians will be at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Jan. 19 to monitor real-time engine data from a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket as it lofts the third U.S. Air Force Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO-3) missile warning satellite into orbit.
This new $1.2 billion, 2-ton spacecraft, intended for hemispheric monitoring, is scheduled for liftoff at 7:46 p.m. EDT at the start of a 40-minute launch window.
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In addition, several Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) missile warning SBIRS payloads with similar sensors have been launched piggyback on other classified U.S. military satellites to specifically monitor northern latitudes.
The use of Russian rocket engines on Atlas V’s flying U.S. military space missions caused a major debate in Congress last year, but continued use of the Russian engine won out over a U.S. replacement because of cost and schedule considerations. The issue could come up again under the new Trump Presidential Administration.
“SBIRS is considered one of the nation’s highest priority space programs,” said Bob Winn, United Launch Alliance’s Air Force program manager.
Locked in their own computer control room in the ULA Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC), the Russian team will monitor the real-time engine parameters of the Russian Energomash RD-180 engine that will power the Atlas V.
The team has also participated in monitoring RD-180 engine checks at the Cape, and with escorts can gain access inside of the Atlas V engine compartment that extends about 15 feet from the base of the rocket on Launch Complex 41.
According to the Air Force and ULA, such a Russian Energomash team has been at the Cape for many, but not all Atlas V missions.
The Atlas 401 version, with no solid rocket boosters, is to place the Lockheed Martin spacecraft into a 22,237 x 115 mile transfer orbit that will be circularized in geosynchronous orbit by several firings of the satellite’s liquid apogee engine.
Earlier USAF Defense Support Program (DSP) scanning infrared missile warning spacecraft were able to detect about 8,000 “infrared events” per year, including about 200 larger missile launches.
But with SBIRS HEO and GEO spacecraft retiring the DSPs, the USAF is now able to track dimmer targets with shorter engine burn times. The Missile Defense Agency has, over the last five years, been able to see about 1,200 additional ballistic missiles, and 5,900 smaller rocket systems in the Middle East and Asia areas outside of NATO, Russia, and China, compared with earlier capabilities.
“Hundreds of [these] launchers and missiles are currently in range of our deployed forces,” said USAF Col. Dennis Bythewood, director of the Remote Sensing Systems Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. Those trends are continuing, he said.
“Regional systems present in Asia and the Middle East are well within the range of our deployed forces. The SBIRS constellation is tasked with providing timely, reliable accurate missile warning information to protect our nation and to our troops operating abroad.” Bythewood said. “Regional missile systems present in Asia and the Middle East are well within the range of our deployed forces.”
The first SBIRS GEO was launched in May 2011 on an Atlas V, followed by the second in March 2013. They currently cover the globe from the eastern Atlantic, across Europe, through the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, and all the way to the Western Pacific.
“The planned GEO-3 location is classified, but the capability of the HEO and GEO satellites we are launching now basically cuts in half the amount of time it takes for the SBIRS network satellite to find and fix a missile launch and feed that into our missile warning network.
“What SBIRS brings in capability beyond the Defense Support Program is the ability to find dimmer targets with shorter burn times, representative of the tactical missile threats that we see in Asia and the Middle East today,” Bythewood said.
The GEO satellites detect and track missile launches globally while the HEO satellites specifically survey northern polar regions and specific IR targets identified by SBIRS or other sensors.
Each GEO satellite is derived from an A2100 bus with a 12-year design life and 9.8-year mean mission duration. It carries a 1,000-lb Northrup Grumman sensor system with both scanning and staring capability. Along with that it has extremely agile pointing and control capability to provide both strategic and tactical data on missile launch locations and impact points.
Current USAF launch weather forecasts show an 80 percent chance of favorable conditions expected for launch Thursday evening from Florida’s Space Coast, with the primary concern being possible cumulus clouds.
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