A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launched a $1.2 billion early warning satellite into orbit in spectacular fashion Thursday. It is the sixth and final member of a worldwide fleet constantly on the lookout for threatening strategic missiles, in theater and.
“The threats are rapidly evolving and modernizing,” Col. Brian Denaro, US Space Force program manager for Space Sensing, said before the launch. “Part of this evolution is a series of functions that are not only more unpredictable, but they are weaker, they burn faster. The bottom line is harder to see.
“It is absolutely critical that our integrated family of systems that provide this overhead persistent IR (infrared) capability are not only able to detect the missiles, we are able to track them throughout their flight and then report on these events on a timeline that is relevant to being able to engage these goals.”
In an ironic reminder of past commercial ties, the space-based Geosynchronous Earth Orbit Infrared System — SBIRS GEO 6 — relied on the Atlas 5’s Russian-built RD-180 first-stage engine to propel it out of the lower atmosphere in a dramatic early-morning climb to space.
The RD-180, along with two Northrop Grumman solid-fuel strap-on boosters, ignited with a burst of burning exhaust at 6:29 a.m. EDT, 17 minutes before sunrise, quickly pushing the 194-foot-tall rocket away from Launch Pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
As the rocket climbed into the light of the rising sun, the exhaust plume turned a brilliant shade of orange before narrowing to a striking white trail after the strap-on boosters fell away, a high-altitude spectacle visible for tens of miles around.
It was the first of two scheduled Florida launches just 12 and a half hours apart, with SpaceX preparing for a Falcon 9 flight from nearby pad 40 to put a South Korean science probe on a lunar orbit.
Spaceflight Now reported that the two launches will set new records for the most rockets to take off from Florida’s Space Coast in one year — 34 — and the shortest time between two orbital flights since 1967.
The Atlas 5 flight plan called for SBIRS GEO 6 to be released into a highly elliptical orbit after three firings of the Centaur second stage Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1-1 engine over three hours. If all goes well, onboard thrusters will be used to put the satellite into a circular 22,300-mile-high orbit above the equator.
At the geosynchronous altitude, satellites take 24 hours to complete one orbit and thus rotate in locked step with the planet below, providing a constant hemispheric view.
Built by Lockheed Martin, the SBIRS GEO 6 satellite is equipped with sensitive “gaze” and scanning sensors to monitor the planet below for telltale heat signatures of rocket engines in flight.
The two newest members of the constellation, GEO 5, launched in May 2021, and GEO 6, have improved cyber “hardening”, better radiation resistance, more electrical power and improved on-board propulsion.
The system works around the clock with other SBIRS and older Defense Support Program warning satellites, providing overlapping views that enable computers to quickly detect, track and predict where incoming missiles might be headed.
“This is an integrated system of functions, integrated end-to-end to deliver … not only the messages and the alerts, but also the ability to do something about it,” Denaro said.
“Our entire integrated team across the Department of Defense is focused on getting those messages where they need to go on the timeline necessary to engage the target and respond in a timely manner.”
An aged Bill Whitaker deepfake
Kentucky man saves neighbors from deadly flood: ‘It was just like being on the Titanic’
Dr. David Agus answers questions about monkeypox and covid-19