CHIRP highlighted within the SES-2 satellite. Credit: SES

WASHINGTON — As it looks to expand its missile warning capabilities, the U.S. Air Force is applying lessons from a recently concluded experimental infrared surveillance mission to a similar pair of payloads currently under development.

In its 2014 budget request, the Air Force said it was working on two experimental missile warning sensors designed to maintain continuous surveillance of a small geographic area, one with a 6-degree field of view and one with a broader 9-degree view. 

In March, the Air Force is expected to award two contracts to develop the 6-degree staring sensor, according to industry sources and budget documents. Much of the work on the 9-degree sensor is now expected to begin in the second half of 2015, according to Hien Vu, a spokesman at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.

Currently the Air Force relies on two big operational systems, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) and the legacy Defense Support Program, for strategic and theater missile warning, but the service is considering the idea of separating out elements of that mission in the future. The Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) mission, which ended in December, helped demonstrate the potential of other sensors to contribute to what Air Force officials often refer to as the overhead persistent infrared surveillance mission. 

CHIRP was launched in September 2011 aboard the SES-2 telecommunications satellite owned by fleet operator SES of Luxembourg. 

The mission drew attention as a pathfinder for hosted payloads — government use of excess payload capacity aboard commercial satellites. But the experiment — the sensor’s development was initiated in response to the troubles on the SBIRS effort — was important in its own right. 

Air Force officials said the CHIRP successfully observed numerous launches during its two years of operation, while budget documents for 2014 said the experiment demonstrated a need for additional on-orbit testing of wide-field-of-view sensors plus algorithm development and data processing. 

On Jan. 27, in a special notice posted to the Federal Business Opportunities website, the Air Force announced it was looking for information on a ground-based data processing system for the 6-degree sensor effort. The information being sought would help shape program planning, the notice said. 

The ground system would need to be completed by the third quarter of calendar year 2016, the notice said. 

In a Feb. 19 email, Vu said the Air Force has six companies under contract to develop preliminary designs for the 6-degree sensor: Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Corp., Leidos Inc., Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and L3-Communications.

As early as  March, the service is expected to downselect to two companies to further refine their concepts to the point that they are ready for critical design review, the point after which construction can begin, according to budget documents. 

In a separate Federal Business Opportunities posting Jan. 9, the Air Force announced that the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University would calibrate, characterize, test and evaluate both the 6- and 9-degree infrared staring sensors. The lab will be under contract for five years “to complete on-going efforts and ensure available support for emerging infrared and hosted payload projects,” the announcement said.

The Air Force asked for $17 million for wide-field-of-view sensor development activities in 2014. The money is being drawn from savings the Air Force achieved through a new acquisitions process for its newest SBIRS satellites.

Meanwhile, revised plans call for the Air Force to receive budgetary confirmation from the Pentagon to move forward on the 9-degree program in late fiscal year 2015, Vu said. The authority was originally expected this spring. 

The service plans to look for a rideshare opportunity, either commercial or international, for an on-orbit demonstration of the 9-degree sensor, according to budget documents.

Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN

Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...