Space surveillance craft launched by Delta 4 rocket

Delta 4 Launch
A Delta 4 rocket roars away from Cape Canaveral’s launch complex 37 carrying a pair of covert satellites. Photo: Steven Young/Spaceflight Now

CAPE CANAVERAL – A pair of covertly developed inspector satellites to monitor collision threats and nefarious activities in geosynchronous orbit for U.S. Strategic Command blasted off Monday aboard a Delta 4 rocket.

The Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP, launched from Cape Canaveral at 7:28 p.m. EDT en route to operational orbits 22,300 miles above Earth.

The GSSAP project was designed in secrecy and only announced to the public by AFSPC commander Gen. William Shelton in February.

“It’s time to stipulate that we’ve got a critical dependence on space. I would challenge…each of you to bring me an example of a miliary operation that doesn’t somehow involve space. That’s from humanitarian relief operations all the way up through major combat,” said Shelton.

It’s that overarching dependence on space that has spurred the U.S. military to ramp up its surveillance on man-made objects and threats in orbit.

Some 170 countries now have at least one satellite of their own and 11 nations have the capability to launch a spacecraft into orbit, Shelton said, adding that with space launch also comes missile technology and the potential for anti-satellite shootdowns.

The Chinese carried out a dramatic kinetic-energy anti-satellite demonstration in 2007, blasting one of its own orbiting spacecraft with a missile, drawing international condemnation.

“And then there are the overt threats, anything from jamming, which is actually mission affecting, obviously, all the way up through high powered laser activity that’s coming along, to kinetic ASAT (anti-satellite) activity. Threats to our spacecraft that not too many years ago we didn’t have to concern ourselves with,” Shelton said.

Built by Orbital Sciences Corp., the twin GSSAP satellites are small in size and stature with an important mission before them. Fitted with an electro-optical sensors, the craft will drift just above and below the geosynchronous satellite belt 22,300 miles above the Earth.

“(They) will drift in probably just below and just above the GEO belt depending on which direction you want to drift and provide that neighborhood watch capability,” Shelton said.

Geosynchronous orbit allows communications, missile launch detection spacecraft and eavesdropping reconnaissance spy satellites to match the Earth’s rotation and appear fixed above one part of the globe.

It is a place where some of the most “precious” Air Force satellites reside.

“Think about Advanced EHF satellites on orbit,” Shelton said of the nuclear survivable communications spacecraft constellation. “When the chips are down that’s the system the President is going to use to communicate his orders; the President and National Command Authority to communicate orders to deployed forces. One cheap shot against the AEHF constellation would be devastating.”

There’s also the Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, that monitors the world on the lookout for enemy missile launches to sound the alarm to friendly countries.

“One cheap shot creates a hole in our environment,” Shelton said.

“SBIRS is great. We can tell you anytime a missile has launched on the planet, we can tell you where it launched from, we can tell you the type of missile it is, we can tell you the impact point. It’s what the President uses to determine his response options; and in the situation of the United States under attack, deciding what to do and when to do it.

“We can’t afford to be down Advanced EHF; down SBIRS.”

That’s where GSSAP will help close the surveillance gap on what’s happening 22,300 miles up.

“Our decision to declassify this program was simple. We need to monitor what happens 22,000 miles above the Earth, and we want to make sure that everyone knows we can do so,” said Douglas Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, at the Department of Defense..

“We believe that such efforts add immeasurably to both the safety of spaceflight and the stability that derives from the ability to attribute actions — to the benefit of all space-faring nations and all who rely on space-based services.”

“If we’re going to be a global power, we want global coverage, we want global access and we want it at a time and a place of our choosing,” Shelton said of space situational awareness.

Two more GSSAP satellites are due to launch in 2016 aboard an Atlas 5 rocket.

“GSSAP will present a significant improvement in space object surveillance, not only for better collision avoidance, but also for detecting threats,” Shelton said. “GSSAP will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have, which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes.”

Shelton said the Air Force tracks about 23,000 objects routinely on a daily basis. “There are some 500,000 objects in space, so a big traffic management problem and a big threat to fragile spacecraft,” he said.

The GSSAP satellites will be operated by the 1st Space Operations Squadron at Shriever Air Force Base in Colorado.

“GSSAP will not replace the capabilities that the 1st SOPS currently operates,” said Brig. Gen. David Buck, AFSPC director of Air, Space and Cyberspace Operations. “SBSS and ATRR operate in low-earth orbits and have different capabilities. GSSAP will be placed in a near-geosynchronous orbit at approximately 22,300 miles above the Earth. It will have a very distinct vantage point in relation to the objects it will be observing in geosynchronous orbit. With GSSAP, we will actually be able to characterize an object to a very discriminate level, not just track it.”

Launching below the GSSAP spacecraft aboard the Delta 4 rocket was ANGELS, a microsatellite from the Air Force Research Laboratory to test autopilot space situational awareness in geosynchronous orbit.

The Automated Navigation and Guidance Experiment for Local Space, or ANGELS, will fly above the GPS constellation but use those positioning signals to demonstrate maneuverability around the spent Delta 4 upper stage.

“The ANGELS spacecraft hosts a (space situational awareness) sensor payload to evaluate techniques for detection, tracking and characterizing of space objects, as well as, attribution of actions in space,” according to the AFRL fact sheet.

Additional payloads on ANGELS will assist operations using a GPS for geosynchronous orbit and high performance accelerometers.

“The GPS system uses advanced algorithms from NASA to receive GPS side lobe signals and generate near continuous navigation solutions. The high performance accelerometers precisely measure small spacecraft accelerations for enhanced guidance and navigation,” the fact sheet said.

“The experimental onboard vehicle safety system explores methods for dramatically reducing the probability of collision with other space objects in an increasingly congested space environment.”

Orbital Sciences also built ANGELS under a $29.5 million deal signed in November 2007.

“The ANGELS program will develop key technologies and capabilities for a broad spectrum of defense and civilian space missions,” Antonio Elias, Orbital’s executive vice president and general manager of its Advanced Programs Group, said at the time. “Under AFRL’s leadership, this effort will help maintain the United States’ continuing technological and industrial superiority in space.”

The mission is scheduled to last one year.

“As other nations show their commitment to invest in systems capable of harming our satellites, we are committed to investing in space surveillance assets like GSSAP that will directly enable safe operations, protect our spacecraft and indirectly enable a range of decisive responses that will render counter-space threats ineffective,” said Shelton.

The launch was the 368th for a Delta rocket, the 27th Delta 4 and the 12th to fly in the Medium+ (4,2) configuration with a pair of strap-on solid motors. For United Launch Alliance, it was the company’s 33rd flight for the Air Force, the 85th launch overall since 2006 and the eighth this year.

The next Delta 4 launch is the much-anticipated Heavy with NASA’s Orion capsule on Exploration Flight Test No. 1, set to lift off from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 4.