U.S. Air Force Decision To End CHIRP Mission Was Budget Driven

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WASHINGTON — The federal budget crunch has led the U.S. Air Force to decommission an experimental missile warning sensor hosted aboard a commercial satellite after 27 months on orbit, according to a Dec. 6 press release.

As recently as July, the service announced it was extending the life of its pioneering Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) mission that launched in September 2011

CHIRP was installed and launched into orbit aboard the SES-2 telecommunications satellite owned by fleet operator SES of Luxembourg. Industry officials have held up the mission as a successful pathfinder, one they hope will lead to an increase in government payloads on commercial satellites in the future.

In October, SES Government Solutions of McLean, Va. announced a two-year CHIRP contract extension with Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. The contract included options for the Air Force to extend the mission every six months through July 2015 for a total cost of $25 million, according to the July announcement.

“We understand the decision for the Air Force to conclude the CHIRP mission was a difficult one, and made on the basis of funding challenges rather than technical difficulties,” Nicole Robinson, vice president of communications and government affairs for SES Government Solutions, said via email Dec. 10. “The two year contract extension recently executed by the Air Force included four six month options, each subject to the availability of funding.  It was that availability of funding that led to the decision to conclude the mission.”

During the mission, the CHIRP system collected more than 300 terabytes of data that allowed for the analysis of 70 missile and rocket launch events and 150 other infrared events, according to the release. “Given the successful accomplishment of the project’s mission objectives, and increasing budgetary constraints, the Air Force chose not to extend the current contract period,” the release said.

CHIRP was expected to have a one-year mission life and the system completed its final demonstration under that arrangement July 2012, according to the release. However, the contract was extended three times to include additional wide field-of-view staring demonstrations.

“CHIRP proved the viability of commercially hosted OPIR (Overhead Persistent Infrared) payloads, and gave us tremendous insights into the applicability of wide field-of-view staring technology to our missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence, and battlespace awareness missions,” Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “The sensor’s ability to provide continuous coverage within the field-of-view proved to be particularly valuable in understanding short duration infrared events. The knowledge gained from its successful operation will continue to contribute to the Air Force’s space modernization initiatives for years to come.”

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has said the Defense Department must consider hosted payloads as one way to help keep costs down. A decision on leveraging commercial satellites is expected in 2015 or 2016.

 

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