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Air Force welcomes new craft into early warning network

Posted: November 26, 2013

A next-generation missile detection satellite launched in March has been accepted into the U.S. military's early warning network after a seven-month checkout period, the Air Force announced Tuesday.

Artist's concept of a SBIRS satellite in orbit. Credit: Lockheed Martin
The second spacecraft in the Air Force's $17.6 billion Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, completed post-launch testing five months ahead of schedule, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said in a press release.

Built by Lockheed Martin Corp., SBIRS satellites carry infrared sensors designed to detect and track the heat signature from missile launches, giving the United States and allies warning of an attack. The satellites can also pick up infrared signals given off by volcanoes, wildfires and large explosions, giving the program crossover appeal outside of the strategic realm.

The SBIRS infrared payload is provided by a division of Northrop Grumman Corp.

The quick introduction of the satellite, known as SBIRS GEO 2, indicates it did not fall victim to the unspecified problems that plagued a preceding spacecraft. The first SBIRS satellite launched in May 2011 and did not enter service until two years later.

Air Force Col. Jim Planeaux, director of the infrared systems directorate overseeing the SBIRS program, told reporters in March the testing of SBIRS GEO 1 revealed a problem with a communications system on the spacecraft.

The problem was described as "sporadic" in a a Defense Department acquisition report published on a Pentagon website.

Planeaux provided no additional details on the issue when he spoke with reporters in a teleconference before the launch of SBIRS GEO 2.

The satellite lifted off from Florida on March 19 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. It began an operational trial period Oct. 21 after its acceptance by Air Force Space Command.

Diagram of the military's infrared missile warning network, including older Defense Support Program satellites and the new-generation SBIRS fleet. Credit: Lockheed Martin
"The satellite was originally scheduled to enter the operational trial period 12 months after launch, but program implemented a number of efficiences based on GEO 1 lessons learned," the Air Force said in a statement. "As a result, the combined test team was able to improve on the original schedule by five months and GEO 2 entered its trial period Oct. 21, 2013, with no liens."

The Air Force did not say how long the trial period would last.

SBIRS GEO 1 was declared operational in May, according to a report in Space News.

"Overall, the GEO 2 satellite's performance matches that of GEO 1 and in some cases exceeds it," the Air Force statement said.

The SBIRS satellites are parked in geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above Earth, an altitude where the spacecraft's orbit matches the rate of Earth's rotation, allowing the platforms to see the same part of the planet all the time.

The coverage zones for SBIRS GEO 1 and GEO 2 have not been disclosed.

The partially-deployed SBIRS system today shares the military's missile warning responsibilities with the Air Force's legacy Defense Support Program satellites to provide global coverage.

Each geostationary SBIRS satellite is equipped with staring and scanning sensors. Controllers can point the staring instrument at specific regional hotspots to monitor for missile launches and feed data to analysts more quickly. The windshield wiper-like scanning sensors pans back and forth across the planet to give each satellite a wider view.

In addition to the geostationary component, the SBIRS program includes hosted infrared payloads mounted on classified National Reconnaissance Office intelligence-gathering satellites flying in highly elliptical orbits. Two of the so-called HEO hosted payloads have already launched, and the next HEO package will launch in 2014 on an NRO satellite.

SBIRS GEO 3 is scheduled to launch in 2015, followed by the GEO 4 satellite a year later. The Air Force gave the go-ahead for Lockheed Martin to begin production of "long-lead" items for the fifth and sixth GEO satellites earlier this year.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.