Last-of-its-kind surveillance satellite reaches orbit
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: November 11, 2007
Saturday night's booming blastoff of the Delta 4-Heavy rocket signaled the end of a 37-year-long string of launches for the U.S. Air Force's early warning satellite program as the military transitions to a new system that will provide better global coverage than ever before.
The Air Force's DSP fleet is being phased out in favor of the Space-Based Infrared System, or SBIRS. The new program will include payloads in geosynchronous and elliptical high Earth orbits.
"DSP's legacy is one of service to the nation," said Peggy Paul, DSP program manager at Northrop Grumman Corp., the spacecraft's contractor.
The first launch of a Defense Support Program satellite was on Nov. 6, 1970, almost precisely 37 years ago.
"I like to think of DSP as really providing a blanket of security that our national has enjoyed since the early 70s," said Air Force Col. Roger Teague, commander of the SBIRS space group at the Space Missile Systems Center.
The formerly classified system was later unveiled to the public, with launches occurring aboard Titan rockets and one space shuttle mission before Saturday's spectacular Delta 4 sendoff to punctuate the program.
"A lot of folks are very much tuned to this being the last DSP launch, but it also helps us look toward the future as we prepare to usher in the SBIRS constellation," Teague said.
The $400 million satellite was deployed in a circular orbit with an inclination of about four degrees. When the craft will join its counterparts already in space is classified.
"We have a very healthy DSP constellation," Teague said. "That gives us great confidence for the next several years that the nation will be protected."
The latest block design of DSP spacecraft are designed to work for at least three years, with a goal of five years of service. Officials say some of the satellites easily surpass those marks.
"They are exceeding that two-to-three times over," said Lt. Col. Joe Coniglio, Air Force DSP program director. "It is a robust system that has been able to do the mission far and above what it was ever designed for."
Combined, the satellites have lived 165 years beyond their minimum expected lifetimes, according to Paul.
"That's 30 to 50 satellites that didn't have to be launched," she said. "That's a real value to the government."
Sensors aboard DSP satellites have lived an average of more than four times longer than their design lives, Paul said.
The DSP system, originally developed to watch for Soviet missile launches and nuclear tests, transitioned to a new role after the end of the Cold War. DSP satellites have met the challenge of the emergence of new players in missile and nuclear technology, according to Teague.
"That brings a new threat to the stage that we're trying to account for and make sure that we have capabilities to guard against that," he said.
Today's DSP satellites carry more than 6,000 infrared detectors that are constantly on the vigil for ballistic and theater short-range missile launches and nuclear detonations. The satellites have proven to be a flexible asset in providing early warning of both strategic and tactical launches, Paul said.
The fleet provided early warning of Iraqi SCUD missile launches to civilians and coalition military forces in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
"DSP has really provided that capability that allows us to live in peace and without fear and knowing that we've got a system that's always watching not only our homeland but also U.S. forces and allies abroad," Teague said.
Scientists have also used DSP infrared instruments to detect volcanic eruptions and wildfires, according to the Air Force.
"Even though it's a legacy system, our folks are still finding ways to exploit the capabilities of this system," Coniglio said.
Future system on the horizon
New satellites in the SBIRS program will join the heritage constellation in geosynchronous orbit beginning in late 2009, according to Teague.
"We're still extracting every ounce of value out of the DSP system," Teague said. "But like all great systems, we've found opportunities and abilities to be able to improve that and we're doing that with SBIRS."
The next-generation system also includes sensors mounted on top secret spy satellites in egg-shaped high Earth orbits. The first instrument package is already in space, the Air Force announced last year.
"This has been a truly revolutionary capability that we now have in HEO," Teague said. "That gives us new glimpses and new capability that we now have the opportunity to exploit."
The first HEO payload is not yet operational, Teague said, but officials are using it as a learning tool before a second group of sensors is launched on another classified host satellite. The HEO system could be declared operational by the middle of next year.
"As we look to launch the SBIRS GEO satellites, we'll be bringing those into the operational constellation," Teague said.
Teague said the first GEO satellite payload has been sent to a Lockheed Martin Corp. facility and integrated on the spacecraft bus for the beginning of a lengthy combined test campaign.
The military holds contracts for two geosynchronous satellites with Lockheed Martin, with an option for a third spacecraft. Teague said a decision on whether to exercise the contract option or move on to a new design is being discussed at the highest levels of military leadership.
"There are a number of decisions ongoing within the Pentagon with regard to at what point do you take that snapshot and draw the line in the sand and say, 'Hey, I'm going to move on to the next generation and how do I do that? Do I evolve my current capability? Do I go out and do something completely different? All of those discussions are underway right now," he said.
The SBIRS system originally included plans for additional geosynchronous satellites, but cost overruns and development delays caused those plans to be scrapped.
Cost estimates for the program have nearly tripled since its inception in 1996. The soaring costs could play a role in a decision whether to launch more SBIRS satellites or create a new system.
"A big lesson that we have to keep in mind is that we've got to be able to appropriately manage our risks and making sure that we don't bite too big of an apple off at one time and that we can deliver something on budget, on cost and on schedule," Teague said.
The infrared sensors and the associated electronic systems for the SBIRS program are built by Northrop Grumman.
The SBIRS payloads include a scanning sensor that will provide more timely data than the DSP instruments. Other detectors on geosynchronous satellites will stare at specific regions with increased sensitivity.
Expanded short-wave and mid-wave infrared sensors will also allow the SBIRS satellites to perform a broader range of missions.
"The scanning technology that we have on orbit with HEO is the exact identical capability that will be on orbit at GEO," Teague said. "It gives us great confidence going forward that what we've got is going to work great."
The SBIRS constellation will work in tandem with the Space Tracking and Surveillance System managed by the Missile Defense Agency. Originally called SBIRS Low and managed by the Air Force, the STSS satellites will be stationed in low Earth orbit to demonstrate the tracking and quick identification of launches for missile defense applications.
The first orbital members of the STSS program will be launched next year.
"In the near term, we feel very confident and comfortable about where we are with being able to provide that surveillance capability," Teague said.
Spaceflight Now's Justin Ray contributed to this report.
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