ULA Readies Mighty Atlas for 4 August Launch of Last SBIRS GEO Satellite

The Centaur upper stage is hoisted atop the Atlas V Common Core Booster (CCB) inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 last week. Photo Credit: ULA

No sooner has the dust settled from its most recent mission—1 July’s launch of the USSF-12 payload for the U.S. Space Force and Department of Defense—but United Launch Alliance (ULA) is already pressing into final preparations for its fifth Atlas V flight of 2022 early next month. Aboard the “Mighty Atlas” when it launches from historic Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., on Thursday, 4 August, will be the sixth and final geostationary member of the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS GEO-6).

Video Credit: Space Systems Command (SSC)

This constellation forms part of a multi-billion-dollar Pentagon effort to replace the earlier Defense Support Program (DSP) network of early-warning satellites. The ancestry of this legacy network dates back to the 1970s.

The SBIRS GEO-6 campaign formally commenced on 12 July, with the onset of Launch Vehicle On-Stand (LVOS) operations, when the 107-foot-long (32.6-meter) Atlas V Common Core Booster (CCB) was rotated upright inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41. The core has been in Florida since late February, when it was delivered by the R/S RocketShip from ULA’s facility in Decatur, Ala., to the wharf at Port Canaveral, alongside hardware for two other missions.

The Atlas V’s Common Core Booster (CCB) arrives at Port Canaveral earlier this year. Photo Credit: ULA

A pair of 63-inch-diameter (1.6-meter) Graphite Epoxy Motors (GEM-63s), built by Northrop Grumman Corp., was affixed to the CCB on 13-14 July, following by the 41-foot-tall (12.6-meter) Centaur upper stage last Friday. Completion of this basic structural build-up of the Atlas V prepares the groundwork for the installation of the Extra-Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF)—housing the SBIRS GEO-6 spacecraft—later this month.

When the Atlas V is fully stacked, it will rise 194 feet (59.1 meters) tall. The 4 August mission marks the ninth use of the Atlas V in its “421” configuration, which numerically designates the 14-foot-diameter (4-meter) XEPF, the two GEM-63 solid-fueled boosters and the single-engine Centaur.

The Atlas V’s Common Core Booster (CCB) approaches the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 earlier this month to commence the Launch Vehicle On Stand (LVOS) campaign. Photo Credit: ULA

This configuration first saw service for the October 2007 launch of the first Wideband Global Satcom (WGS-1), part of a family of military communications satellites now operated by the Space Force. Since then, 421s also lifted the ICO-G1 and Morelos-3 commercial communications satellites in April 2008 and October 2015.

Added to that list have been WGS-2 in April 2009, NASA’s Magnetic Multiscale Mission (MMS) in March 2015, the highly secretive NROL-61 and NROL-52 missions for the National Reconnaissance Office in July 2016 and October 2017 and last year’s SBIRS GEO-5. With plans to retire the Atlas V later this decade, SBIRS GEO-6 may wind up as ULA’s final scheduled outing for the long-serving 421.

The Atlas V’s Common Core Booster (CCB) is readied for hoisting into the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). Photo Credit: ULA

The SBIRS GEO-6 payload arrived in Florida in early June for final pre-flight processing. Described as a “global guardian” for ballistic missile detection and defense, it is the sixth and final geostationary-orbiting element of an upgraded set of space-based infrared “eyes” and follows hard on the heels of its five predecessors, launched between May 2011 and May 2021.

As the successor to DSP, it is expected to fulfil the United States’ space surveillance needs for the next two decades, emphasizing advanced early warning, missile defense and battlespace characterization. Following the SBIRS GEO-6 launch, six satellites will thus sit at geostationary altitude, plus adjunct sensors aboard the HEO-1 and HEO-2 satellites, which were injected into highly elliptical orbits in June 2006 and March 2008.

Video Credit: Lockheed Martin

But the run-up to the first SBIRS GEO launch, way back in May 2011, was marked by a long and tortured development process, which saw program costs balloon by over 400 percent from an estimated $4 billion to $17 billion, thanks in part to immature technologies, unclear requirements, unstable funding, underestimated software complexities and poor oversight. A lack of alternate options, however, precluded the program’s cancelation and over the past decade it has more than proven its capabilities.

There include sophisticated scanning/staring sensors, with enhanced infrared sensitivity and the scope to provide wide-area (“scanning”) surveillance and small-area (“staring”) observations. A $284.4 million contract for long-lead-time items for SBIRS GEO-5 and GEO-6 was awarded in March 2013, ahead of a definitive $1.86 billion contract between the Air Force and Lockheed Martin in June 2014 to fabricate both satellites.

The Atlas V Common Core Booster (CCB) is elevated upright for emplacement in the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). The dual nozzles of the RD-180 engine are clearly visible. Photo Credit: ULA

The two satellites wrapped up their Critical Design Review (CDR) at Lockheed Martin’s Sunnyvale, Calif., facility, in September 2017, to glowing praise of the program’s “resiliency”. And in February 2019, ULA received a $441.6 million contract to launch three payloads—including SBIRS GEO-5 and GEO-6—with the GEO-5 element targeted for after March 2021 and GEO-6 for 2022.

Last September, the Space Systems Command (SSC) Production Corps announced the structural completion of SBIRS GEO-6, with launch set for the first half of 2022. This proved an astonishing accomplishment, with the assembly and testing campaign having coincided with the worst ravages of COVID-19.

One of the two GEM-63 solid-fueled boosters, provided by Northrop Grumman Corp., is raised into the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) for stacking. Photo Credit: ULA

“This is a monumental achievement by the women and men of the SBIRS Program, past and present, who were able to complete production ahead of schedule and deliver on warfighter commitments we made nearly a decade ago,” said Col. Matt Spencer, the GEO/Polar Division Senior Materiel Leader in SSC’s Production Corps.

“The additional capability this committed government and contractor team has been able to deliver with SBIRS GEO-6 is nothing short of remarkable, given the entire integration and test campaign was done under the COVID-19 pandemic.”

OFT-2 takes flight on 19 May. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

“The SBIRS program is an invaluable part of our early missile warning system,” said Cordell DeLaPena, the Space Force’s program executive office for space production. “With the completion of SBIRS GEO-6, our missile warning enterprise grows stronger and will be better able to support the warfighter once it is safely launched and integrated into the already existing infrastructure.”

The SBIRS GEO-6 launch will be ULA’s fifth Atlas V mission of 2022, following hard on the heels of the Space Force’s USSF-8 and USSF-12 geostationary payloads in January and July, the latest Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-T) in March and the successful delivery in May of Boeing’s Starliner on its critical second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) to the International Space Station (ISS).

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