BOSTON — The U.S. Air Force intends to award a contract this August for a missile-warning demonstration satellite that would be launched to geosynchronous orbit in 2010, according to service officials. Data from the experiment would feed into the Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS) now being developed for deployment around 2015, these officials said.

The Air Force hatched the AIRSS effort in 2005 after its primary missile warning satellite-development program, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), was restructured amid technical difficulties that led to lengthy delays and soaring costs. The Air Force originally intended to buy five dedicated SBIRS satellites; plans now call for buying two or three before moving on to a replacement system.

Uncertainty continues to surround even the restructured SBIRS program. For instance, senior Air Force officers, citing recent progress, have raised the possibility of going back to the original plan of buying five dedicated SBIRS satellites from prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif.

SBIRS program decisions will determine the approach the Air Force takes on AIRSS, particularly in terms of risk management. If, for example, the Air Force decides to limit its SBIRS procurement to two or three satellites, it would adopt a low-risk approach for the first two AIRSS satellites to minimize the potential for a missile warning gap, according to Col. Bob Newberry, the AIRSS program director.

Newberry and other Air Force officials provided a peek at the service’s evolving missile warning strategy Feb. 21 in a series of AIRSS briefings to industry at Los Angeles Air Force Base. Space News listened in on the briefings and later conducted interviews with AIRSS program officials.

The first dedicated SBIRS satellite is scheduled to launch in October 2008, to be followed roughly one year later by the second. The Air Force’s $1.04 billion SBIRS budget request for 2008 includes funds for a third satellite, and the Pentagon expects to decide this summer whether it will go through with that purchase. Those funds would be shifted to the AIRSS program should the Pentagon opt for only two SBIRS satellites, Newberry said in a Feb. 21 telephone interview. The service’s budget request for AIRSS next year is $230.9 million.

AIRSS program officials anticipate a first launch around 2015 based on traditional satellite development cycles, but have not developed specific deployment schedules based on the various SBIRS procurement scenarios, according to 2nd Lt. Shirali Patel, a spokeswoman for the AIRSS program office.

Charts used by Newberry during the industry briefing show that the Air Force’s requirements for the initial AIRSS satellites — assuming the SBIRS program is cut short — would be meet or exceed SBIRS specifications in areas like launch detection and probability of warning. However, in some areas, like prediction of theater ballistic missile impact points and burnout conditions for both theater and long-range missiles, AIRSS might be less capable than SBIRS, the charts indicate.

At bare minimum, the Air Force is aiming for an AIRSS capability equivalent to that of the current missile warning satellite system, the Defense Support Program.

The sensors aboard the Defense Support Program satellites are designed to scan large swaths of territory for missile launches and other heat-generating events. The SBIRS satellites, by contrast, will have two main sensors: one for broad-area scanning and one that can stare continuously at smaller areas that are deemed likely launch sites for enemy missiles.

The sensor envisioned for the AIRSS satellites would employ advances in focal plane technology over the last decade to stare continuously at broad areas. But if the system is pressed into service early, the Pentagon might have to forgo the broad-area staring capability, at least on the first two satellites, Newberry said.

If, on the other hand, the Defense Department reverts to its original plan to buy five dedicated SBIRS satellites, the Air Force would reposition AIRSS as a true next-generation replacement, Newberry said. At that point, the “A” in the AIRSS acronym could represent “Advanced,” he said.

Industrial design work on various elements of the AIRSS system is well under way. Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., and General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems of Gilbert, Ariz., are designing AIRSS satellite systems under Air Force contracts worth about $24 million apiece that were awarded late last year. Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Mass., and SAIC Corp. of San Diego are developing prototype AIRSS wide-area staring sensors under 18-month contracts, awarded in September, that are worth $24 million and $54 million, respectively. And on Feb. 14, the Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Azusa, Calif., a $21.9 million contract to study AIRSS data processing and dissemination.

Newberry acknowledged that the Air Force would have to select an AIRSS prime contractor before the demonstration mission is launched should it determine that it needs to get the initial satellites on orbit early. But he added that even under that scenario, the demonstration would provide data relevant to the procurement and development of the more-capable AIRSS satellites that would follow.

Newberry also said the Air Force intends to request funding in 2009 for a rocket to launch the demonstration satellite to geosynchronous orbit.

Maj. Eric Moltzau, program manager for missile warning satellite systems in the developmental planning directorate at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, said the AIRSS flight demonstration would test some, but not all, capabilities envisioned for the operational system. One function that will be left off the demonstration is on-orbit data processing, Moltzau said.

The prototype sensors being designed by Raytheon and SAIC will be tested on the ground rather than on the demonstration satellite, according to industry sources. Nonetheless, the goals of the demonstration satellite include retiring some of the risks associated with wide-area staring sensors, the sources said.