WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s recently launched Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite is progressing through its check-out phase on schedule and soon will begin several months of testing before entering operations in the spring, a service official said Jan. 7.

As the Air Force prepares to integrate the orbiting optical telescope with its collection of ground-based telescopes and radars for space surveillance, it is still working to determine exactly when it will initiate a competition to build a follow-on satellite, Air Force Col. Arnold Streland, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC)’s Space Superiority Systems Directorate, said in an interview.

The SBSS satellite was built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo. After a protracted development, the satellite was launched Sept. 25 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., aboard a Minotaur 4 rocket into a highly inclined 630 kilometer orbit. From that position, the satellite will be able to observe and track satellites and other space objects as small as a baseball. It is expected to increase the number of objects the Air Force can track in space by a factor of 10.

The satellite bus has been thoroughly checked out by a team of SMC and Boeing engineers, and the focus is now on completing checkout of the payload to ensure the accuracy of the data it will collect, Streland said.

“The spacecraft is doing great and performing rock solid,” Streland said. “I could not be prouder of our government and contractor team that are doing the checkout now.”

Streland said the spacecraft is in its final orbit and all of its subsystems have been checked out.

“So now it’s all about checking out sensor performance, verifying it does what it’s supposed to be doing,” he said. “That involves collecting a lot of data and then analyzing a lot of that on the ground. All of that feeds into our preparations for operational test and evaluation.”

When SMC and Boeing complete the check-out phase, the test-and-evaluation phase will begin along with engineers from the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center and operators from the 50th Space Wing at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., who will ultimately fly the spacecraft on a full-time basis. Streland would not comment on the specific aspects of the test plan, which is expected to be complete by late spring.

When SBSS is certified for operations, it will be integrated with the Air Force’s ground-based space surveillance assets and tasked as needed by the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Boeing engineers will support 50th Space Wing operators at Schriever at least through the end of 2011 under a $25.8 million contract option the service exercised Dec. 21.

Though the SBSS telescope is much smaller than those used at ground observatories, the spacecraft’s observations will not be hampered by cloudy skies or daylight, Streland said.

“The value of doing space situational awareness from space is timeliness,” he said. “We have a sensor that can see stuff more often than ground based sensors. If you think about the telescopes on the ground, they only work at night, and obviously they need a clear sky.

“The real power of this system is going to be when it’s part of that integrated ground-based telescope and radar network. If the ground-based telescope sees something and they want to take a second look, they can ask SBSS to go look at it. That helps us build a picture of what’s going on in space in a more timely manner.”

The Air Force at one time planned to hold a competition in 2010 to build a follow-on SBSS spacecraft. That procurement was delayed in part because the service faces rising costs on its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, government and industry sources said. SMC is currently working with Air Force headquarters, Air Force Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command to determine the schedule for buying a follow-on satellite, Streland said. The requirements for the next satellite will not change, but it may be possible to meet those requirements with different spacecraft designs, he said.

“When we look at the requirements for a follow-on system, they really look like the requirements for our current system. Those are sufficient to address the needs we have.

“We don’t necessarily think we need an identical spacecraft. For example, we believe the mission can be done without a gimbaled sensor. … We believe there are options for what the actual spacecraft looks like, so we’re looking at doing a competition when we finalize the plan to move forward. We’re still working through the exact phasing of when we’re going to do it.”