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ULA’s Atlas 5 launches U.S. Space Force experimental missile-warning satellite

The $1.1 billion USSF-12 mission flew to geosynchronous Earth orbit
Atlas 5 launch
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 on July 1, 2022, launched the USSF-12 mission for the U.S. Space Force. Credit: ULA

WASHINGTON — A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on July 1 launched the USSF-12 mission for the U.S. Space Force. The rocket lifted off at 7:15 p.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.

The $1.1 billion USSF-12 mission to geosynchronous Earth orbit carried two satellites: the Wide Field of View (WFOV) missile-warning spacecraft for the U.S. Space Force, and a ring-shaped payload adapter with six classified smallsat experiments for DoD’s Space Test Program.

This was the 94th mission of the Atlas 5 rocket. The vehicle’s first stage was powered by an RD-180 engine and four solid rocket boosters, and the Centaur upper stage by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine. To encapsulate the satellites, ULA used a 5.4-meter diameter payload fairing made by Beyond Gravity (formerly RUAG Space).

USSF-12 was originally scheduled to fly in April but was delayed for undisclosed reasons. A June 30 launch attempt was scrubbed due to bad weather conditions

WFOV is a mid-sized spacecraft made  by Millennium Space Systems with an infrared sensor payload developed by L3Harris Technologies under a 2016 contract from the U.S. Air Force. WFOV is a testbed satellite, meaning that it is not part of an operational missile-warning constellation but a stand-alone experiment.

At 1,000 kilograms, WFOV is about one-fourth the size of the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) spacecraft that currently perform strategic and tactical missile warning for the Defense Department. ULA will launch the SBIRS-6 satellite in late July.

The WFOV satellite, equipped with a staring sensor, will be used to test different ways to collect and report missile launch data. The Space Force said the research will inform the design of future missile-warning satellites. WFOV will be able to continuously monitor up to one-third of the Earth’s surface.

The ring-shaped smallsat carrier payload, known as a propulsive ESPA ring, was built by Northrop Grumman.

The Space Systems Command in a news release confirmed both satellites on USSF-12 reached orbit six hours after liftoff,  a trajectory requiring three Centaur engine burns. ULA used an in-flight power system to keep the WFOV satellite’s batteries topped off throughout the six-hour flight to geosynchronous orbit.

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...