ULA Kicks Off Busy Atlas V Manifest with SBIRS GEO-5 Launch

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V ‘421’ rocket lifts off with SBIRS GEO-5 for the U.S Space Force on May 18, 2021. Photo: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace.com

Following a one-day scrub due to an “anomalous ground system data” response, United Launch Alliance (ULA) has successfully despatched its first Atlas V mission of 2021. Liftoff of the “Mighty Atlas”—flying in its “421” configuration, with a 13-foot-diameter (4-meter) payload fairing, two strap-on boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage—occurred at 1:37 p.m. EDT Tuesday from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. The booster successfully lofted the fifth Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS GEO-5), which adds combat-readiness to a current four-satellite network of advanced missile early-warning sentinels at geostationary altitude.

This afternoon’s mission marks ULA’s second flight of 2021, following the launch last month of a triple-barreled Delta IV Heavy from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., laden with the highly secretive NROL-82 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Two other Atlas V flights originally planned for earlier this spring—the multi-manifest STP-3 mission for the Space Test Program and the second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner to the International Space Station (ISS)—were subjected to extensive delay and will now fly on 23 June and 30 July, respectively. This correspondingly pushed SBIRS GEO-5 into pole position as the first Atlas V payload of the year.

“The world is a more threatening place now with more than 1,000 ballistic missile launches occurring globally every year,” said Tom McCormick, vice president of Lockheed Martin Space’s OPIR Mission Area. “SBIRS is the tip of the missile defense spear, seeing all those missiles and providing our military the ability to ensure our national security and the safety of our armed forces.”

“Thank you to our mission partners for the tremendous teamwork as we processed and launched this asset that provides powerful surveillance and critical capabilities to protect our warfighters,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs. “We are proud to work with the U.S. Space Force to continue to meet the national security needs of our country.”

As previously detailed by AmericaSpace, the 107-foot-long (32.6-meter) Common Core Booster (CCB) and 41-foot-long (12.6-meter) Centaur upper stage for this mission departed ULA’s manufacturing site in Decatur, Ala., aboard the R/S RocketShip vessel in late March. The oversized cargo traveled via the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, before arriving safely in Port Canaveral on 1 April.

ULA’s R/S RocketShip delivered the stages to the launch site on March 31, 2021. ULA photo

Both hardware elements parted ways for their respective pre-launch processing campaigns and last month the vertical integration of the rocket and its two Aerojet Rocketdyne-built AJ-60A solid-fueled boosters got underway on the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP). The 194-foot-tall (59.1-meter) stack was declared complete on 7 May, when the Extra-Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF)—which housed SBIRS GEO-5 bird and provided acoustic and environmental protection during its violent climb to space—was affixed to its tip.

Last week’s Launch Readiness Review (LRR) was followed on Saturday by the hour-long rollout of the gigantic Atlas V from the 30-story Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to the pad. Shortly after being declared “hard-down” on the pad’s concrete piers, the process of loading around 25,000 gallons (113,600 liters) of highly refined kerosene—known as “RP-1”—into the Common Core Booster (CCB) first stage got underway. Originally targeting a 1:35 p.m. EDT Monday liftoff, the initial phases of the countdown ran exceptionally smoothly. Weather conditions, too, proved highly favorable, with a 90-percent chance of meeting “Go” readiness at T-0.

Check out our remote camera views! Credit: Jeff Seibert / AmericaSpace.com
Atlas V with SBIRS GEO 5 thundering off the launch pad. Photo: Jeff Seibert / AmericaSpace.com

But the first gremlin reared its head as efforts began to chill-down the liquid oxygen system of the Atlas V and the transfer lines to the Centaur upper stage, ahead of cryogenic tanking. A longer-than-expected onset of the chilldown process caused the issue to be referred to Anomaly Chief Dave McFarland, whose team proceeded to the pad to address “an anomalous system response” and an unplanned hold was inserted into the countdown. At length, however, ULA Launch Director Steve Huff announced that Monday’s launch attempt would be scrubbed and rescheduled for 1:31 p.m. EDT Tuesday.

“Precious cargo,” tweeted ULA CEO Tory Bruno after the scrub. “Didn’t sort out anomalous ground system data in time. See you tomorrow.”

The weather outlook for Tuesday appeared about 80-percent favorable, with a slight chance of violating the Cumulus Cloud Rule. “An area of high pressure over the Mid-Atlantic States builds through the week, causing a tightening pressure gradient over the Florida peninsula with brisk onshore flow,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base. “This continued onshore flow keeps chances for isolated to scattered low-topped showers moving onshore, especially near the coast.” Conditions were projected to worsen to only 70-percent favorable—thanks in part to ground winds—on Wednesday.

Atlas V lifts off with SBIRS GEO-5 for the U.S Space Force on May 18, 2021. Photo: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace.com

The second launch attempt seemed charmed from the outset, with a smooth power-up of the rocket and testing of its critical systems ahead of cryogenic loading. “Clean count,” tweeted Mr. Bruno shortly before 10 a.m. EDT. “Team is not working any issues.”

Fueling of the Atlas V CCB and Centaur with a total of 66,000 gallons (250,000 liters) of liquid oxygen and hydrogen concluded a little under an hour before liftoff and entered “topping”, as the weather outlook brightened—figuratively and literally—to around 90-percent favorable. At 1:12 p.m. EDT, as the countdown reached T-4 minutes, clocks halted as planned for a final built-in hold.

Originally planned to run for 15 minutes, the hold was slightly extended to allow teams to complete all procedures ahead of the Terminal Count. At length, a revised T-0 of 1:37 p.m. EDT was co-ordinated and ULA Launch Conductor Scott Barney polled his teams for a “Go/No-Go” readiness status. This produced a definitive “Green Board”, with Mission Director Col. Erin Gulden issuing final permission to launch the vehicle.

Atlas V roars to space with SBIRS GEO-5 for the U.S Space Force on May 18, 2021. Photo: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace.com

Liftoff at 1:37 p.m. EDT was characteristically perfect, as the Atlas V’s Russian-heritage RD-180 engine and the twin AJ-60s pushed the stack off the pad with a combined thrust of almost 1.6 million pounds (705,000 kg). Two minutes after launch, the boosters were expended of propellant and jettisoned, after which the RD-180 continued to burn hot and hard until it shut down at 4.5 minutes into the mission. The CCB was itself jettisoned and the Centaur’s single RL10C-1-1 engine ignited for a lengthy seven-minute “burn” to inject its precious payload into an Earth-parking orbit.

“Hot, straight and normal,” tweeted Mr. Bruno.

The Centaur shut down precisely at 1:52 p.m. EDT and began a 16-minute “coast” phase above the Atlantic Ocean, ahead of its second burn. During this time, a pair of Multi-Manifest Satellite Vehicles—flying on behalf of the Multi-Manifest Office at the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), based at Los Angeles Air Force Base in Los Angeles, Calif.—were deployed from the aft end of the Centaur. Designated “TDO-3” and “TDO-4”, the two 12U CubeSats were reportedly developed, tested and integrated in just nine months.

Atlas going supersonic with SBIRS GEO 5. Photo: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace.com

Little has been revealed about their precise objectives, with ULA noting only that “a multi-manifest mission set allows more capability to be placed on-orbit”, with the eventual goal of “providing more critical capabilities to the warfighter”. Two earlier missions with similar designators, TDO-1 and TDO-2, rode aboard Atlas Vs in August 2019 and March 2020, alongside the second-to-last and last Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) military communications satellites. The two missions focused upon a range of orbital debris tracking and space domain awareness functionality tasks.

At 2:08 p.m. EDT, the Centaur restarted for its second and final burn, which ran for 3.5 minutes. This positioned SBIRS GEO-5 into an orbit of some 22,200 miles (35,740 km) x 575 miles (925 km), inclined 21.14 degrees to the equator.

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.

Lockheed Martin-built SBIRS GEO-5 Mission Warning Satellite in Acoustic Testing

SBIRS forms part of a multi-billion-dollar Pentagon effort to replace the earlier Defense Support Program (DSP) network of 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 the GEO-5 and GEO-6 satellites 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 as early as March 2021.

GEO-5 pressed smoothly through Thermal Vacuum (TVAC) testing last summer, which constituted a “major milestone” in readying the satellite for final assembly. “Lockheed Martin Space overcame COVID-19-related challenges,” noted the Air Force, “to maintain assembly and test operations with minimal impacts.” Following its completion last fall, SBIRS GEO-5 was delivered aboard a C-5M Super Galaxy transport aircraft from Moffett Airfield in California to the Space Coast in March.

SBIRS in orbit. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

The design of SBIRS GEO-5 marks the inaugural use of Lockheed Martin’s heavily modernized LM2100 “Combat Bus”, carrying 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 benefits 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, the LM2100 Combat Bus architecture will also form the baseline for the upcoming Next-Generation Overhead Passive Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) Block 0 satellites and the Global Positioning System (GPS) Block III Follow-On series, both of which are expected to enter service around the middle of this decade.



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