WASHINGTON — Sensors designed for the U.S. Air Force’s F-35 aircraft monitored five NASA sounding rocket launches that took place in rapid succession this past spring, demonstrating the next-generation fighter’s ballistic missile detection, tracking and targeting capability, according to a Northrop Grumman press release.

The suborbital rockets, launched March 27 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, were detected and tracked simultaneously by the electro-optical distributed aperture system (DAS) and electronically scanned radar array sensors, the press release said. Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Linthicum, Md., designed both sensor suites for the F-35, which is built by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md.

The DAS, a suite of six infrared cameras providing a 360-degree spherical view from the aircraft, autonomously detected and tracked all five rockets through second-stage burnout, the press release said. The radar sensor was able to detect and track the rockets independently but also based on cuing data from the DAS camera suite, which enabled detection at a greater range, the release said.

The sensors used in the demonstration were carried not by an F-35 but aboard Northrop Grumman’s BAC1-11 testbed aircraft, a converted passenger jet, the company said. Only minor modifications to the sensor software were necessary, the press release said.

“Since DAS is always staring simultaneously in every direction, an operator does not have to point the sensor in the direction of a target to gain a track,” Jeff Leavitt, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s combat avionic systems business unit, said in a prepared statement. “The F-35 pilot could continue the primary mission while the sensors automatically observe ballistic missile threats.”

NASA launched the rockets at 80-second intervals starting at 4:58 a.m. for the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment, designed to gather information on the jet stream roughly 100 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. The demonstration was coordinated with the Air Force and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and did not affect the space agency’s scientific objectives, the press release said.

Northrop Grumman announced in November 2010 that the DAS system aboard the BAC1-11 aircraft detected and tracked the June 4, 2010, maiden launch of Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket from a distance of 1,300 kilometers. That press release was accompanied by a video from the DAS system that shows the rocket from when it clears the horizon all the way through second-stage burnout.



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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...