Air Force satellite launches successfully after delay

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WASHINGTON — An Air Force missile warning satellite launched successfully Friday, a day after it was delayed due to a series of technical and range issues.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, in a 401 configuration, lifted off successfully from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 7:42 pm Eastern. It’s the company’s first launch for 2017.

The launch had originally been planned for one day earlier, but was eventually scrubbed after a series of delays, including reports of a plane that wandered into restricted airspace.

The second attempt Friday was successful, launching the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System satellite into geosynchronous orbit.

The military’s third SBIRS satellite will bolster missile warning and tracking capabilities, said Col. David Miller, 460th Space Wing commander at Buckley Air Force Base, several days before the launch.

“We’re able to provide better warning to our U.S. forces, the United States government, as well as our allies on what’s launching, where it’s launching from, where is it going, and when is it going to get there,” Miller told SpaceNews.

He noted the extensive preparation the Air Force and ULA go through to make sure the rocket is ready to travel to space.

“Once you launch this vehicle, it’s never coming back,” Miller said. “Our preparation to ensure that A, the launch is successful, and B, that we are ready for all those discrete operational milestones that have to occur at the right time in sequence, in order to ensure the vehicle is successfully deployed 22,200 miles from here.”

“The American taxpayer has put a lot of money into this SBIRS spacecraft,” he added. “We want to make sure that we take every precaution we can to operationally deploy this sensor.”

SBIRS GEO-3 will be the first satellite to begin life operated with the Block 10 ground system. The new ground system — accepted operationally Dec. 2 — collects missile warning data and command and control from satellites in geosynchronous orbit, elliptical orbits, and the older Defense Support Program constellation.

Miller said the consolidation coupled with better sensors will allow the Air Force “to see more, quicker, with more accuracy then we’ve ever had before.”

Missile warning satellites were originally developed to detect potential launches of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles from the Soviet Union. But during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the military began experimenting with detecting the launches of smaller, in-theater missiles that are more difficult to detect because they often have shorter and dimmer burn periods.

“We began to explore the capability of not just looking at ICBM and submarine-launched ballistic missiles for nuclear weapons, but also the threat at that time was the SCUD-B that Iraq had, and we were concerned with them using,” Miller said.

The military wanted to “exploit this capability as quickly as we can and get [troops downrange] as much info and awareness of what’s going on on the battlefield,” he said.

A fourth SBIRS satellite launch is planned for Nov. 9. The launches of two additional satellites, SBIRS 5 and 6, are currently scheduled for 2021 and 2022, respectively.

The constellation is eventually intended to replace the Defense Support Program satellites. Miller called it “one of the most successful satellite programs that the Air Force has ever used,” but noted that the DSP satellites are getting old.

“There is only so much I can get out of this schoolbus-sized Defense Support Program satellite designed around a photoelectric cell array basically the size of your hand,” he said. “The technology was conceived in the 60’s, deployed in the 70’s, upgraded in the 80’s, in the 90’s, and we just kind of ran out on what we could field on that system.”

The key to SBIRS success is the constellation as a whole, and the ground system’s ability to combine data from a wide variety of sensors, Miller said.

“The operational benefits of individual launches speak for themselves,” he said. “Where we really see the biggest dividend, however, is what you can get when you have complimentary advanced-capability sensors overlapping in some areas of coverage potentially to get redundancy, but, more importantly, the speed, accuracy, and timeliness of the reporting that we can provide as a result of that compliment. They were never designed as single one-offs. They were always designed to be operating as a system.”