Atlas V Launches Last SBIRS, as ULA Looks Ahead to Mission-Filled Fall

ULA’s fifth Atlas V flight of 2022 roars into the pre-dawn darkness of the Space Coast. Photo Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has successfully delivered the sixth and final geostationary member of the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS GEO-6) on behalf of the U.S. Space Force Space Systems Command (SSC). Liftoff of a mighty Atlas V occurred at 6:29 a.m. EDT Thursday from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., right on the opening of a 40-minute “launch window”.

Video Credit: ULA

As this AmericaSpace story was being prepared, the rocket’s Centaur upper stage—powered by Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RL-10C engine—was midway through a trio of “burns” to deliver this critical national security asset to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). The Centaur should position SBIRS GEO-6 into its requisite high-energy GTO “slot” about three hours into the mission.

This morning’s flight was ULA’s fifth Atlas V mission of 2022. It follows 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 of Boeing’s Starliner on its critical second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) to the International Space Station (ISS) in May.

Compilation video of our Up Close launch pad cameras of USSF SBIRS GEO-6 satellite. Video credit: Jeff Seibert
Photo Credit: ULA

Preparations for the SBIRS GEO-6 launch campaign formally commenced on 12 July, when the 107-foot-long (32.6-meter) Common Core Booster (CCB) of the Atlas V was transported to the 30-story Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41 and hoisted upright. Powered by a Russian-heritage RD-180 engine, the core had been in Florida since late February, when it was delivered via the R/S RocketShip from ULA’s facility in Decatur, Ala., to the wharf at Port Canaveral, alongside hardware for two other missions.

A pair of 63-inch-diameter (1.6-meter) Graphite Epoxy Motors (GEM-63s), built by Northrop Grumman Corp., was affixed to either side of the CCB on 13-14 July. This was followed by installation of the 41-foot-tall (12.6-meter) Centaur upper stage.

The Atlas V springs away from SLC-41 at 6:29 a.m. EDT Thursday. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert

Completion of this basic structural build-up of the Atlas V prepared the groundwork to install the Extra-Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF)—housing SBIRS GEO-6—on 26 July. Fully stacked, the Atlas V rose 194 feet (59.1 meters) from pad level.

Early Tuesday morning, under mostly clear skies and with only light winds, the behemoth began its snail-like rollout spanning a quarter-mile (400-meter) from the VIF to the SLC-41 pad surface. “First motion” occurred at 10 a.m. EDT and the stack was declared “hard-down” on the pad’s concrete pedestals a little over an hour later.

Image Credit: ULA

This allowed engineers to begin the process of configuring Atlas systems for Thursday’s launch attempt. The CCB was also fueled with 25,000 gallons (113,600 liters) of a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1”, with cryogenic tanking taking place early on Launch Day.

The weather outlook for Thursday appeared to be 70-percent favorable, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base, with a noticeable deterioration to 50-50 in the event of a 24-hour scrub to Friday. “Isolated showers are expected to develop over the near-shore Atlantic waters toward sunrise,” noted the 45th, “and there is a small concern for a Cumulus Cloud Rule violation during the initial launch attempt.”

Photo Credit: ULA

However, by early Thursday the outlook had improved to 80-percent-favorable. Tanking of the Atlas V and Centaur with 66,000 gallons (300,000 liters) of liquid oxygen and hydrogen got underway shortly before 4 a.m. EDT.

Threading the needle, the Mighty Atlas powered smoothly aloft at 6:29 a.m. EDT Thursday, her RD-180 dual-nozzle engine and twin GEM-63s punching out over 1.6 million pounds (725,000 kilograms) of thrust. She surpassed Mach 1 and experienced peak aerodynamic effects on her airframe a little under a minute into the flight.

Video Credit: ULA

The twin GEM-63s burned out and separated two minutes after launch and the RD-180 shut down at just a few seconds past four minutes. Separation of the booster’s core stage left the Centaur to effect three lengthy “burns”—the first lasting 8.5 minutes, a second running to just under five minutes and a third a few seconds shy of one minute—to deliver SBIRS GEO-6 to a high-energy Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) over about three hours.

This will pre-position the satellite in an orbit with a “high point” (or apogee) of 21,956 miles (35,335 kilometers) and a “low point” (or perigee) of 3,240 miles (5,217 kilometers), inclined 17.63 degrees to the equator. SBIRS GEO-6 has a projected 12-year operational lifetime.

Image Credit: U.S. Space Force

The SBIRS GEO constellation, whose first five members were launched between May 2011 and May of last year, forms part of a multi-billion-dollar Pentagon effort to replace the earlier Defense Support Program (DSP) network of early-warning satellites, whose ancestry dates 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.

The SBIRS GEO-6 payload arrived in Florida in early June for final pre-flight processing. Its arrival in orbit now means that there are six satellites 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.

Image Credit: ULA

But the run-up to the first SBIRS GEO launch 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.

These 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. Northrop Grumman Corp. built the spacecraft’s advanced payload.

SBIRS GEO-6, housed inside its Extra-Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF), is readied for hoisting atop the Atlas V in the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) on 26 July. Photo Credit: ULA

“Northrop Grumman’s payloads and components provide the military with critical missile warning capabilities for our warfighters and allies,” said Aaron Dann, vice president of Strategic Force Programs at Northrop Grumman. “The launch of SBIRS GEO-6 marks the end of a proud legacy on this program, one that involved Northrop Grumman from the very first mission in 2011 and demonstrates our continued leadership in support of missile tracking and defense architecture.”

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.

SBIRS GEO-6 is the sixth and final geostationary member of the Space-Based Infrared System. Photo Credit: U.S. Space Force

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.

“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.”

Video Credit: Lockheed Martin

“The SBIRS program is an invaluable part of our early missile warning system,” added 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.”

Up next for ULA is another Atlas V from the Space Coast, targeted to fly during a month-long “window” from 7 September through 7 October. This mission will deliver the SES-20 and SES-21 communications satellites to orbit on behalf of Luxembourg-headquartered provider SES.

Video Credit: Space Systems Command (SSC)

In June 2020, Boeing was selected to build SES-20 and SES-21 on its all-electric 702SP satellite platform. Later that same summer, ULA won the launch services contract to deliver SES-20 and SES-21 to orbit.

The two satellites, which will ride uphill in a dual-stacked configuration aboard the Atlas V, each carry ten C-band transponders and are part of an ongoing effort to accelerate SES’ C-band clearing plan to meet Federal Communications Commission (FCC) objective to roll out 5G services. The arrival in service of SES-20 and SES-21—to be positioned, respectively, at 103 degrees West and 135 degrees West longitude—will facilitate the broadcast delivery of digital television to over 120 million homes, plus critical data services.

Artist’s concept of a SBIRS GEO satellite in orbit. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

Also targeting a late summertime launch is the final Delta IV Heavy from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-6 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., carrying the highly secretive NROL-91 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. In keeping with its classified nature, no specific launch date has been revealed for this mission.

Looking ahead into the fall and early winter, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)-2, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will ride an Atlas V out of Vandenberg’s SLC-3E as early as 1 November. From its pole-to-pole orbital perch at an altitude of about 515 miles (830 kilometers), JPSS-2 will utilize four scientific instruments—an advanced microwave sounder, an infrared sounder, an ozone mapper and visible infrared imaging radiometer—to gather data on atmospheric moistures, pressures and temperatures, assess ozone health and observe land, ocean and atmospheric parameters at high temporal resolutions.

Video Credit: NASA

Also flying aboard the Atlas V for November’s JPSS-2 mission will be NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID). This technology demonstrator seeks to trial a 20-foot-diameter (6-meter) inflatable “aeroshell” which might potentially have future applications in the delivery of heavy payloads to Mars, Venus or Saturn’s large moon, Titan.

After the deployment of JPSS-2, LOFTID will be emplaced onto a re-entry trajectory from low-Earth orbit to demonstrate the aeroshell’s capacity to survive a controlled entry into the atmosphere. It is expected to descend via parachute to land in the Pacific Ocean, near Hawaii.

Following the success of OFT-2 in May, NASA and Boeing remain hopeful that the CST-100 Starliner’s Crew Flight Test (CFT) may take place before year’s end. Photo Credit: NASA

Rounding out 2022—just possibly—may also be the long-awaited Crew Flight Test (CFT) of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, carrying NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Suni Williams for a short visit to the ISS. That mission may occur as early as December.

And the maiden voyage of ULA’s Vulcan-Centaur, laden with Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, also remains firmly targeted for year’s end. Peregrine will land a 200-pound (90-kilogram) payload of scientific instruments on Lacus Mortis, a hexagonal basaltic plateau in the Moon’s northeastern quadrant.

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