SES-2. Credit: Orbital ATK

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A U.S. Air Force official said it is “questionable” whether an idled experimental missile-warning sensor hosted aboard a commercial telecommunications satellite could be reactivated for civilian use, as has been proposed.

The Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, or CHIRP, was launched in September 2011 aboard the SES-2 telecommunications satellite owned by fleet operator SES of Luxembourg. Built by Leidos Holdings Inc. of Reston, Virginia, the sensor observed several launches before being shut down due to budget pressures within the Air Force.

During a panel discussion in Washington on commercially hosted government payloads in March, U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) raised the idea of reactivating the sensor. Bridenstine said at the time that CHIRP may be able to find a new life in monitoring weather conditions or wildfires.

But during a press briefing here at the Space Symposium April 15, Col. Mike Guetlein, commander of the remote sensing directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, said it is not clear whether reactivating the sensor is possible, assuming the necessary funding could be found.

“It’s questionable if it can come back on,” Guetlein said. He declined to say whether the Air Force was studying the matter.

During its mission, CHIRP collected more than 300 terabytes of data on 70 missile and rocket launches, and 150 other thermal events, SES has said. That information remains in a data archive.

Rick Spinrad
Rick Spinrad. Credit: Oregon State University

In a March 23 memo to Rick Spinrad, chief scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the agency, which is responsible for weather forecasting, would study data in the archive in April to determine CHIRP’s potential to contribute to that mission.

Spinrad had met with Defense Department officials, including Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, to see if the data could provide information on the early detection of wildfire and severe weather prediction, the memo said. In the past, Air Force officials have said the CHIRP sensor could support federal and international agencies dealing with events such as volcanoes, floods, snow and ice accumulation, electrical grid blackouts and forest fires.

After the meeting, NOAA assembled a team with appropriate security clearances to study the archive and report back to Spinrad on its value to NOAA, the memo said.

Bridenstine, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee, has been active in promoting wider government use of private-sector space capabilities. In a March 25 letter regarding CHIRP to Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, Bridenstine forwarded Spinrad’s memo and said he looked forward to ensuring “we utilize our existing assets to the greatest extent possible.”


Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.