U.S. Air Force AEHF-1 Sat To Begin On-orbit Checkout

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The first of a new generation of secure U.S. military communications satellites completed its 14-month journey to geostationary orbit after having a propulsion glitch that delayed its arrival at its operating orbit for more than a year.

The U.S. Air Force said Oct. 24 that the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF)-1 satellite will now start a four-month test and checkout phase. Control of the satellite will be transferred at the end of that phase from the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Air Force’s space procurement organization, to the Air Force Space Command’s 14th Air Force, according to a press release.

“The next chapter for AEHF-1 — on-orbit test and checkout — is even more important as the satellite transitions to its operational mission of delivering protected communications to Department of Defense users and our international partners,” Dave Madden, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Milsatcom Systems Directorate, said in a statement.

AEHF-1, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., was successfully launched into a highly elliptical parking orbit Aug. 14, 2010, aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The satellite’s on-board bi-propellant thruster was supposed to raise it to its final operating position in geostationary orbit over a 30-day period.

But the thruster failed due to foreign object contamination, forcing the Air Force and Lockheed Martin to form a new orbit-raising plan that used a different set of spacecraft thrusters. That plan was designed to conserve on-board fuel and was expected to take six to seven months. But the target date for the satellite’s arrival had been pushed back multiple times.

The Air Force expects the AEHF-1 satellite to operate for 14 years, as required under Lockheed Martin’s contract. Lockheed is under contract to build three AEHF satellites, and has been authorized to begin ordering parts for a fourth. The satellites are designed to provide secure, jam-proof communications to U.S. strategic and tactical forces under all conditions.