Flight hardware for a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster tasked with delivering the U.S. Space Force’s fifth geostationary-orbiting Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS GEO-5) payload arrived safely at Port Canaveral on Thursday, 1 April.
The 107-foot-long (32.6-meter) Common Core Booster (CCB) for the Atlas V and its 41-foot-long (12.6-meter) Centaur upper stage had traveled from ULA’s facility in Decatur, Ala., to the Cape, via the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, aboard the R/S RocketShip transport vessel. Efforts will now enter high gear to prepare the booster for the first Atlas V mission—and ULA’s second planned launch—of 2021, reportedly no sooner than 17 May.
Described by ULA as the “exclusive launch vehicle of choice” for the SBIRS GEO series, the Atlas V hardware departed Decatur on 23 March and reached Port Canaveral late Wednesday night. At dawn yesterday, technicians commenced the laborious process of boarding the R/S RocketShip to release the securing restraints.
At 8 a.m. EDT Thursday, the Centaur—whose RL-10C-1 engine will fire for almost 15 cumulative minutes during the mission, across three “burns”, to deliver SBIRS GEO-5 to orbit—emerged from the confines of the RocketShip and headed to ULA’s facilities for flight preparations. Next came the turn of the CCB itself, which was pulled directly via truck to the ordnance bay in the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) for processing.
When the Atlas V launches next month, it will do so in its “421” configuration, equipped with a 13-foot-diameter (4-meter) payload fairing, two strap-on solid-fueled boosters and a single-engine Centaur. All told, this combination can lift payloads weighing up to 30,800 pounds (14,000 kilograms) to low-Earth orbit or up to 15,200 pounds (6,890 kilograms) to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).
The 421 has been used seven times between October 2007 and most recently the October 2017 launch of NROL-52 for the National Reconnaissance Office. In addition to two missions for the NRO, other past customers included two Wideband Global Satcoms (WGS), two commercial communications satellites and NASA’s 2015-launched Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS).
Uniquely, however, May’s launch will be the first time that an Atlas V has flown in the 421 configuration to lift a SBIRS GEO satellite to orbit. The first three SBIRS GEO missions in May 2011, March 2013 and January 2017 rode atop “401” boosters, with no strap-on rockets, although January 2018’s launch occurred on a “411” with a single side booster.
ULA CEO Tory Bruno noted at the time that the additional impetus afforded by the single solid provided “enough energy to allow Centaur to be immediately deorbited” after completing its mission, rather than placing it into a designated disposal (or “junkyard”) orbit for slower decay and eventual re-entry. It is believed that the additional performance afforded by the 421 will allow a more optimized orbit for the payload.
And that payload, SBIRS GEO-5, completed an ahead-of-schedule construction and testing campaign last October, with the elimination of unnecessary programmatic oversight and reporting, a restructured test program and a streamlined production schedule having enabled Lockheed Martin Corp. to finish SBIRS GEO-5 in only five years. Described as a “global guardian” for ballistic missile detection and defense, it is the fifth geostationary element of an upgraded set of space-based infrared “eyes” and follows four previous missions also launched atop Atlas Vs between May 2011 and January 2018.
SBIRS forms part of a multi-billion-dollar Pentagon effort to replace the earlier Defense Support Program (DSP) network of missile early-warning satellites, whose own ancestry extends back to the 1970s. It is expected to enable the United States’ space surveillance needs for the next two decades, with focuses including advanced early warning, missile defense and battlespace characterization. In its final form, it will comprise six GEO satellites at geostationary altitude, together with adjunct sensors aboard the HEO-1 and HEO-2 satellites, which were inserted into highly-elliptical orbits back in June 2006 and March 2008.
The successful launch of SBIRS GEO-1 in May 2011 marked the culmination of a long and tortured development process, which saw costs balloon by over 400 percent from an estimated $4 billion to over $17 billion. According to General Accounting Office (GAO) auditors, as reported by Defense Industry Daily in February 2013, the program suffered from “immature technologies, unclear requirements, unstable funding, underestimated software complexity [and] poor oversight”.
As circumstances transpired, the Air Force’s apparent lack of alternatives for an urgent national requirement to have an advanced infrared surveillance system in orbit to actively monitor ballistic missile launches and nuclear events seems to have prevented SBIRS’ cancelation. Its capabilities include highly sophisticated scanning/staring sensors, with improved infrared sensitivity and the scope to provide wide-area (“scanning”) surveillance and small-area (“staring”) observations. Three further SBIRS GEO satellites were launched in March 2013, January 2017 and January 2018.
In the meantime, a $284.4 million contract for the purchase of long-lead items for GEO-5 and GEO-6 were awarded in March 2013, ahead of the definitive $1.86 billion deal between the Air Force and Lockheed Martin in June 2014 to fabricate both satellites. At the time of the award, it was noted that the contract formed part of “a thoughtful acquisition strategy aimed at further reducing cost and cycle time”. In particular, more than a billion dollars’ worth of saving were achieved through “block-buy” contracting practices and the elimination of unnecessary program oversight and reporting, a restructured test program and a streamlined production schedule.
In September 2017, both GEO-5 and GEO-6 wrapped up their Critical Design Review (CDR) at Lockheed Martin’s Sunnyvale, Calif., facility, with Col. Dennis Bythewood, director of SMC’s Remote Sensor Systems Directorate, praising the “resiliency” of the program. Upon the completion of the CDR, both satellites moved directly into manufacturing and integration. In February 2019, ULA was awarded a $441.6 million contract to launch three payloads—including SBIRS GEO-5 and GEO-6—with an expectation that the GEO-5 element would fly atop an Atlas V from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., as early as March 2021.
In spite of the traumas that 2020 has brought in terms of the worldwide march of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, GEO-5 pressed smoothly through Thermal Vacuum (TVAC) testing earlier this summer, described as a “major milestone” in readying the satellite for final assembly. “Lockheed Martin Space overcome COVID-19-related challenges,” noted the Air Force, “to maintain assembly and test operations with minimal impacts.”
The design of SBIRS GEO-5 is based upon Lockheed Martin’s tried-and-true AM2100 “bus”, equipped with twin solar arrays and a powerful communications and imaging payload. In what has been described as a “technical refresh update”, their newer components and more modern electronics are expected to achieve a boost in capability and reliability. The new SBIRS birds benefit from 26 enhancements, ranging from improved cyber-hardening, greater spacecraft power, propulsion and electronics, common components to streamline manufacturing and a flexible design architecture.
According to Lockheed Martin, GEO-5 was completed in a record-breaking five years and is an incremental step towards the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) follow-on series of satellites, expected to enter service later this decade. Those spacecraft are also being built by Lockheed Martin, with a Northrop Grumman Corp./Ball Aerospace team expected to finalize the CDR on the imaging payload in May 2021.
Led by the Infrared Space Systems Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at Los Angeles Air Force Base in Los Angeles, Calif., the satellites and their ground systems are operated by the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo. “SBIRS’ role as an ever-present, on-orbit guardian against global ballistic missile threats has never been more critical,” said Tom McCormick, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for OPIR Systems. “In 2019 alone, SBIRS detected nearly one thousand missile launches, which is about a two-fold increase in two years.”