WASHINGTON — In its first mission of 2022, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on Jan. 21 launched a pair of space-monitoring satellites for the U.S. Space Force. 

The rocket lifted off at 2:00 p.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.

The mission, called USSF-8, launched to an orbit approximately 22,000 miles above the equator.

The satellites, named GSSAP-5 and GSSAP-6, are part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP). These are the fifth and sixth satellites of the GSSAP program built by Northrop Grumman. 

USSF-8 marked the 91st launch of the Atlas 5 rocket.  ULA said this was the first and only planned flight of the Atlas 5 in the 511 configuration with a single solid rocket booster and a 5-meter diameter fairing. ULA CEO Tory Bruno said on a webcast that this asymmetric “big slider” configuration was chosen in order to provide “just the right amount of energy” for this particular mission. 

About two minutes into flight, the GEM-63 solid rocket booster was jettisoned. The payload fairing separated from the rocket about three and a half minutes after launch. A minute later, the RD-180 engine on Atlas’ first stage shut down, and the Centaur upper stage carrying the USSF-8 payload separated. The first engine burn of the Centaur upper stage was confirmed 13 minutes into flight, the first of three engine burns over a more than seven-hour flight to inject the satellites directly into geosynchronous orbit. GSSAP-5 separated six hours and 35 minutes after launch, followed by the GSSAP-6 release about 10 minutes later. The Space Force confirmed Friday evening that the mission was successful.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond called USSF-8 a “really important mission” because the GSSAP satellites are used to monitor objects in the geostationary belt. “The way I would describe it is as a neighborhood watch capability that allows us to better understand what’s going on in the domain especially in a really critical orbit like the GEO orbit,” said Raymond. 

The first two pairs of GSSAP satellites were launched in 2014 and 2016 on ULA Delta 4 medium rockets. ”These next two satellites will add to that capability and enable us to understand more completely things that occur in the geosynchronous orbit. It’s a key piece in the puzzle for space domain awareness,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of the Space Force’s Space Operations Command.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...