Lockheed Penalized for AEHF Propulsion Problem

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The U.S. Air Force said June 10 it has levied a $15 million penalty on Lockheed Martin Space Systems for a quality-control error that will cause a geostationary communications satellite to take much longer to reach its final orbit.

In announcing the penalty, the Air Force also said U.S. Strategic Command approved a plan to slow the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite’s orbit raising operations to conserve fuel.

Built by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Lockheed Martin, the AEHF-1 secure communications satellite was launched last August aboard an Atlas 5 rocket that deployed the satellite into a highly elliptical orbit some 230 kilometers above Earth at perigee and 50,000 kilometers above Earth at apogee. The satellite was designed to use its hydrazine-fueled liquid apogee engine to raise its perigee to 19,000 kilometers over 30 days, and then use its xenon-ion electric thrusters to circularize its orbit at 36,000 kilometers over 90 days.

The spacecraft’s liquid apogee engine failed to ignite, and the Air Force soon announced it would implement a backup plan to raise the satellite’s perigee to 19,000 kilometers using smaller on-board thrusters fueled by the same hydrazine tank as the liquid apogee engine.

That plan would have allowed the satellite to reach its final destination by Aug. 31 of this year. The new plan approved by Strategic Command will extend the process to Oct. 3, the Air Force press release said.

“This extension does not affect the initial operational capability date and provides additional fuel reserves to support potential future contingency operations,” it said.

Air Force officials faulted Lockheed Martin for failing to properly flush out one of the satellite’s fuel lines, which resulted in the engine failure. As such, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems center and Lockheed Martin have agreed to a $15 million reduction in the award fee the company will receive, the press release said.