After Hosted Payload Success, U.S. Air Force Plans Follow-on

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WASHINGTON — Hoping to build on the success of its pioneering project that saw an experimental missile warning sensor launched last year aboard a commercial telecommunications satellite, the U.S. Air Force is requesting funding in 2013 for a follow-on mission, according to a service official.

“We are right now in the midst of planning a follow-on to CHIRP,” said Doug Loverro, executive director of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. “Obviously, there are still many budget wickets to jump through in order to go ahead and make sure that is agreed to throughout the government process. … Some initial work has already been started by our program office and some initial interactions with the commercial industry.”

CHIRP, or Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, was launched Sept. 21 aboard the SES-2 communications satellite operated by Luxembourg-based SES. The satellite was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., while the sensor was supplied by SAIC of McLean, Va.

The Air Force-owned sensor is performing well on orbit and has observed multiple launches to date, Loverro said during a recent two-part CHIRP panel discussion moderated by Space News and sponsored by SES Government Solutions of McLean.

Loverro said funding for the follow-on mission is included in the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Space Modernization Initiative account, but could not provide a specific number. SBIRS is the Air Force’s primary missile warning system, the first dedicated satellite for which was launched last May and is still undergoing testing, with formal operational certification expected this year.

The Air Force’s $83.2 million request for SBIRS modernization next year includes $12.6 million for hosted payloads and $7.4 million for a wide-field-of-view sensor testbed, according to budget justification documents released in February. CHIRP is a wide-field-of-view staring sensor designed to detect and track the heat signature of missiles as they lift off.

Loverro said the CHIRP follow-on mission, if approved, would be an “operational demo” of a sensor specifically designed to operate in space. The CHIRP payload now on orbit was conceived several years ago as a ground-based testbed for a possible early replacement for SBIRS, a program that at the time was struggling mightily with cost overruns and delays.

Funding for the so-called Alternate Infrared Satellite System dried up after SBIRS prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems convinced Air Force officials that it had gotten the notoriously troubled program back on track. But the Air Force continued to fund work on the SAIC sensor, opting to use it as a pathfinder for hosting government payloads aboard commercial spacecraft.

Thomas Taverney, senior vice president SAIC, said the specifics of the CHIRP follow-on mission are not entirely clear at this point. “They have previously discussed what they call a CHIRP Replenishment, or CHIRP+, which would potentially take the current design from a technical demo to an operational demo,” Taverney said in a follow-up to the panel discussion. “They talked about sensors that cost less than $40 million and that could be built in less than 36 months.”

While the current CHIRP experiment is focused on the strategic missile warning mission, the follow-on might entail the “full spectrum” of overhead persistent infrared sensor applications, including “monitoring static targets, characterizing transient events and assisting with environmental monitoring,” Taverney said.

Air Force and industry officials have raised the possibility of using infrared sensors aboard commercial satellites to take on the tactical missile warning mission. The hosted payload approach is not feasible for strategic missile warning because commercial satellites are not hardened to withstand the effects of a nuclear blast, according to Loverro. 

“It is logical to disaggregate the strategic warning mission from the tactical missile warning, battlespace awareness and theater intelligence missions,” Taverney said. These missions, he added, lend themselves to a wide-field-of-view staring sensor that maintains constant surveillance of large areas yet can pick up relatively dim infrared signatures.

During the panel discussion, Taverney said CHIRP weighs a lot less than comparable sensors because there are not a lot of moving parts, outside of a focus wheel and filter wheel. Analysts can also add and subtract frames for low-light events, which provides a lot of flexibility, he said.

“I think we can say at this point that we have kind of proven all of the great features we thought that a staring system would have,” Taverney said during the panel discussion. “It has all of those features. The data looks very good.”

 

Space News Editor Warren Ferster contributed to this story.