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Air Force satellite to continue tracking of space traffic

Posted: September 3, 2014

U.S. Air Force officials have approved a stopgap mission for launch in 2017 to monitor satellite traffic in geosynchronous orbit, tasking the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory to design and build a small space surveillance satellite.

Artist's concept of the Space Based Space Surveillance satellite, which monitors traffic in geosynchronous orbit. The ORS 5 mission will continue the SBSS observations while the Air Force develops a more capable follow-up surveillance spacecraft. Credit: U.S. Air Force
The mission, known as ORS 5, is managed under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space Office based at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

The small spacecraft will fly in a low-inclination orbit several hundred miles above Earth with a sensor to scan geosynchronous orbit, a heavily-trafficked belt of satellites 22,300 miles over the equator.

Geosynchronous orbit is a popular operating location for large military and commercial communications satellites because the perch offers constant views of the same region of Earth.

The Air Force announced in July that it will task MIT's Lincoln Laboratory to design and build an operational demonstration of the SensorSat satellite, a concept proposed by the lab's researchers for several years.

Air Force Gen. William Shelton, then the head of Space Command, told lawmakers in April that the ORS 5 mission would bridge a potential gap in surveillance of geosynchronous orbit currently provided by the Space Based Space Surveillance, or SBSS, satellite launched in 2010.

The Air Force is working on a follow-on satellite to the SBSS project for launch in 2021. Technologies demonstrated on ORS 5 could be harvested for the SBSS follow-on mission, officials said.

In the statement announcing the ORS 5 mission, the Air Force said the satellite "provides risk reduction for cutting-edge technologies to be transitioned to the Space-Based Space Surveillance system follow-on baseline program of record."

Officials did not disclose specifics of the sensor to be flown on ORS 5. The SBSS spacecraft has an optical telescope to see objects thousands of miles away in high-altitude orbits.

The Air Force's space surveillance network incorporates data from ground-based radars, SBSS and other assets to keep tabs on more than 23,000 objects in orbit.

The Air Force says it is seeking a dedicated launcher for the ORS 5 satellite, which is in the lift range of the Orbital Sciences Corp. Pegasus XL and Minotaur 1 rockets, along with Lockheed Martin's Athena 1c booster.

"The ORS 5 program will demonstrate a low-cost small satellite launch capability and aspects of autonomous operations via the existing Multi-Mission Space Operations Center ground architecture," the Air Force said.

The Pentagon set up the ORS initiative to prove the military could select, build and launch small satellites to fill needs identified by commanders. Unlike the Air Force's larger satellite programs, the ORS missions have a narrow tactical focus with much leaner budgets.

The Air Force has proposed slashing the ORS office's budget for years, but Congress has kept the program running.

Previous ORS missions have tested tactical satellite communications for the U.S. Navy, a hyperspectral imager for U.S. Central Command, and an autonomous launch safety system that could modernize American spaceports.

The announcement of the ORS 5 mission came on the heels of the launch of two Air Force satellites to roam geosynchronous orbit to monitor satellites from a closer perspective.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.