U.S. Air Force Readies Competition for Clone of SBSS Block 10

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WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Air Force prepares for a scheduled July launch of a satellite designed to keep tabs on objects in geostationary orbit, the service is gearing up to hold a competition to build a follow on spacecraft that will essentially be a carbon copy of the first.

The first Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite is in storage at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.’s facilities in Boulder, Colo. Ball Aerospace built the satellite and its optical telescope as a subcontractor to Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif. Boeing developed the satellite’s on-board processor and ground infrastructure and will operate the satellite from Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.

After lengthy delays due to technical issues and a program restructuring, the SBSS satellite will be launched no earlier than July 8 aboard a Minotaur 4 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Air Force Col. James Jordan, SBSS mission director and vice commander of the service’s Space Superiority Systems Wing, said in an April 14 media briefing at the National Space Symposium. It will be shipped from Ball Aerospace’s facilities to the launch site in late May, company spokeswoman Roz Brown said.

The Air Force has been somewhat inconsistent on the question of whether the SBSS follow on satellite would have improved capabilities or otherwise different requirements compared to the first. The answer to that question should be a key factor in deciding whether to hold a competition to build the craft or make a sole-source award to the incumbent contractor.

Gary Payton, undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, said in a March 23 interview that the Pentagon would conduct a competition to build the follow-on craft because it would feature new capabilities. However, according to an April 23 posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website, the next satellite will have identical requirements to the first spacecraft, known as SBSS Block 10.

Boeing offered to build the SBSS follow-on satellite under a firm fixed-price contract, Craig Cooning, general manager of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, told reporters in March. The Air Force originally planned to pursue that route but was overruled by officials in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, according to an industry source. Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin did not respond by press time to a request for comment.

The Air Force now plans to conduct an open competition and award a contract in early 2011, the posting said. The satellite, expected to launch by late 2014, will operate with the existing SBSS ground infrastructure. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center plans to hold an industry day May 18, the posting said.

Brown would not say whether Ball Aerospace would work with Boeing or compete on its own for the contract to build the SBSS follow-on satellite.

Meanwhile, program officials believe they have resolved the launch vehicle issue that was responsible for the most recent delay of the SBSS Block 10 launch. The satellite was ready for launch in September and was supposed to be the first payload to fly atop the Minotaur 4, a rocket based on excess U.S. strategic missile motors. The first launch of that rocket, assembled by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., was delayed by some six months while the Air Force worked to correct an issue with the third stage rocket motor, which was producing too much thrust.

That problem was resolved, but because of the value of space surveillance data to the military, another payload was selected for the maiden Minotaur 4 flight: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 demonstrator. That launch went off without a hitch on April 23.

The first Minotaur 4 launch was suborbital and used the rocket’s so-called Lite configuration, without a commercial fourth-stage motor. The SBSS launch will be the first orbital Minotaur 4 launch.

SBSS Block 10 will replace the military’s Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX), which was decommissioned in 2008. MSX was launched in 1996 as a missile tracking demonstrator for a year-and-a-half-long mission but found new life in an operational role as part of the military’s space surveillance infrastructure. SBSS will provide “twice the sensitivity and 10 times the capacity of prior space-based sensors,” Todd Citron, director of space superiority and special missions for Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, said during the April 14 media briefing.

The satellite will use a 175-kilogram telescope with a 30-centimeter aperture that will aim at different targets with the use of a gimbal, Tim Harris, Ball Aerospace’s director of national defense programs, said during the briefing. The satellite has a seven-year design life, which should allow for at least two years of simultaneous operations with the follow on spacecraft.

“We think the first sensor is the first step,” Jordan said. “Obviously we’ve done some studies that suggest having two sensors on orbit would be a good thing to do.”