Missile Defense Agency Retires NFIRE Satellite

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Missile Defense Agency in August formally retired a once-controversial experimental satellite designed in part to characterize rocket exhaust plumes, steering the spacecraft eventually toward atmospheric re-entry, manufacturer Orbital ATK announced Sept. 28.

The Near-Field Infrared Experiment, or NFIRE, was built at Orbital ATK’s Gilbert, Arizona, facility and launched in April 2007 aboard a Minotaur rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia. The satellite’s primary payload was the Track Sensor Payload, designed to collect data on missile launches in various types of environments and weather conditions.

Originally the NFIRE satellite was also supposed to carry a demonstration kill vehicle, a projectile-firing experiment that raised concerns among some arms control advocates that the mission was a step toward placing weapons in space.

Eventually that aspect of the mission was abandoned, and in its place the satellite hosted a laser communications link supplied by Germany. That payload communicated with ground sites and with an identical laser link aboard Germany’s TerraSAR-X radar Earth observation satellite.

NFIRE was originally designed to operate for one year but received several one-year extensions. Its decommissioning entailed three onboard thruster firings to lower the satellite to an orbit that will lead to atmospheric re-entry, Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, said.

“From November 2008 to April 2015, NFIRE successfully executed more than 950 inter-satellite and satellite-to-ground laser communications links with its Laser Communications Terminal,” Tawnie Harrison, Orbital ATK’s NFIRE program manager, said in a prepared statement.