SUNNYVALE, Calif — After overcoming obstacles that seemed insurmountable at times, U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin officials said they are poised for a May 4 launch of the first of a new generation of geosynchronous-orbiting missile warning satellites that will enhance the Pentagon’s ability to detect and track theater missiles while supporting missile defense and intelligence missions.

Development of the first dedicated satellite in the Air Force’s future missile warning constellation, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), was beset by problems from the start. Program managers encountered a series of hardware and software problems that caused major delays and raised costs dramatically. Originally slated to begin launching in 2002 at a cost of less than $3 billion, the initial SBIRS constellation, consisting of five dedicated satellites — four on orbit and one spare — plus two sensors hosted aboard classified satellites, is now expected to cost around $10 billion.

“There have been a lot of doubters along the way,” said Brig. Gen. (select) Roger Teague, director of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) Infrared Space Systems Directorate. “We had a lot of issues to overcome, but we’ve done that. You are going to see a system on orbit that will demonstrate that success.”

The final components have been installed on the first SBIRS geosynchronous spacecraft, GEO-1, including a deployable light shade, solar arrays, thermal blankets and flight batteries. The spacecraft completed its final factory testing Feb. 6 and is being packed up for its March 1 flight on an Air Force C-5 cargo plane to its launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

With a little more than two weeks to go before that flight, Teague and Jeffrey Smith, vice president and SBIRS program director at Lockheed Martin Space Systems here, said in a Feb. 10 interview that they are confident in the ability of the satellite’s two sensors to perform their missions. One sensor is designed to scan broad areas of the globe for the infrared signature of missiles while the other stares at specific geographic areas to detect fainter and shorter-duration sources of infrared light.

“We are dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s,” Smith said. “We have done extensive testing on this satellite. We feel confident that we’ve got it right in terms of ensuring that we have mission success on orbit.”

Teague, who has been nominated and confirmed to become the new SMC vice commander, said GEO-1 should not be viewed alone, but rather as part of a comprehensive infrared surveillance system designed to replace the existing Defense Support Program early warning satellites and to offer additional capability to support missile defense, provide critical intelligence and assist theater commanders.

The SBIRS constellation includes sensors hosted on classified satellites in highly elliptical orbits, two of which are operating on orbit, four geosynchronous satellites and an extensive network of ground stations to receive, process and disseminate the information obtained by those sensors. As prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Space Systems is responsible for the entire package.

The Air Force in January awarded the company a $424.7 million contract modification to begin full-scale production of the fourth geosynchronous SBIRS satellite. Lockheed Martin officials have said they expect an order for the fifth and sixth geosynchronous satellites late this year.

In parallel to preparing GEO-1 for shipment to the Cape, Lockheed Martin engineers have integrated the hardware and software components of the second satellite, GEO-2, and completed the first major electrical test of that spacecraft, Smith said.

No launch date has been set for GEO-2, but Lockheed Martin is scheduled to complete integration and testing of the spacecraft in approximately one year, Teague said. At that point, Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, will decide when to launch GEO-2 based on other national security space priorities, he added.

Before GEO-2 is launched, Air Force officials will scrutinize the performance of GEO-1. The time lag between launches “gives us a chance to make sure that we completely understand everything we need to do to successfully operate the [GEO-1] satellite and then prepare to launch GEO-2,” Teague said.

One of the most recent setbacks to face the SBIRS program was a serious problem with GEO-1’s software that required the team to scrap the majority of the code that had been written and start from scratch. “While at the time it was certainly a setback for the program, it was absolutely necessary,” Teague said. “I have great confidence going forward that the software is going to continue to serve this program very well in the future.”

To confirm that opinion, 10 independent teams from government and industry reviewed the SBIRS satellite software. “This is easily the most highly scrutinized software development effort SMC has had,” Teague said. “That speaks to the importance of this mission and the importance of this program.”



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Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...