WASHINGTON — The first of a new generation of super secure U.S. military communications satellite, which suffered an on-board propulsion glitch that has delayed its arrival at its operating orbit for more than a year, is going to take a bit longer than previously announced.

The U.S. Air Force said Oct. 3 that the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF)-1, which was supposed to arrive at its operating location that same day, will not get there until late in the month. “The decision to slow down the orbit-raising plan was made to balance operational needs, space environmental factors and vehicle conditions,” the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base, said in a press release.

AEHF-1, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., was successfully launched into a highly elliptical parking orbit Aug. 14, 2010, aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The satellite’s onboard bi-propellant thruster was supposed to raise it to its final operating position in geostationary orbit over a 30-day period.

However, that thruster failed due to what investigators later determined was foreign object contamination, forcing the Air Force and Lockheed Martin to devise a new orbit-raising plan that used a different set of spacecraft thrusters. That plan, devised to conserve on-board fuel, initially was expected to take six to seven months, but the target date for the satellite’s arrival has been pushed back multiple times.

Despite the latest delay, the Air Force still expects the AEHF-1 satellite to operate for 14 years, as required under Lockheed Martin’s contract. The Air Force announced in June that it would recoup the costs of the anomaly through “productivity improvements” by prime contractor Lockheed Martin. 

Lockheed Martin is under contract to build three AEHF satellites, and late last year was authorized to begin ordering parts for a fourth. The satellites are designed to provide secure, jam-proof communications to U.S. strategic and tactical forces under all conditions, including a nuclear war environment.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...