Air Force’s 1st Dedicated SBIRS Satellite Makes Orbit

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force successfully launched its first Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) geosynchronous missile warning satellite May 7 aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., the service announced May 7.

After nearly a decade of delay due to myriad technical and programmatic troubles, the first SBIRS satellite is expected to reach its final orbit May 16. It will join the service’s legacy Defense Support Program satellites on orbit to provide the United States with global, persistent surveillance of missile launches, as well as contributing to other missions such as missile defense and tactical intelligence.

The satellite was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., and the payload was developed by Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Azusa, Calif. Lockheed Martin previously delivered two SBIRS payloads that are hosted on classified satellites in highly elliptical orbits. The company is under contract to deliver a total of four SBIRS geosynchronous satellites and four hosted SBIRS payloads.

Some 43 minutes after liftoff, the United Launch Alliance (ULA)-built Atlas 5 rocket deployed the SBIRS satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit, the press release said. The satellite’s initial orbit carries it about 200 kilometers from Earth at its closest point and 36,000 kilometers from Earth at its farthest, Jim Sponnick, ULA’s vice president of mission operations, said during an April 26 media briefing.

The spacecraft will fire its liquid apogee engine six times over nine days to circularize its orbit at 36,000 kilometers, Jeff Smith, Lockheed Martin’s SBIRS vice president and general manager, said during the briefing.

Once the satellite reaches geosynchronous orbit, it will begin a six-month checkout and calibration phase before it is expected to begin delivering usable data to the tactical intelligence community, Air Force Brig. Gen. (select) Roger Teague, director of the Infrared Space Systems Directorate at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles, said during the briefing. U.S. Strategic Command is expected to certify the satellite for integrated theater operations in October 2012, Teague said.