Troubled Space-Based Infrared Satellite Program Finally Gets Off the Ground
At one time the two missile defense satellite systems were notorious examples of over budget, technologically challenged military space programs.
SBIRS — space-based infrared systems — was conceived in the early 1990s as the next-generation of spacecraft that could not only warn when intercontinental or theater ballistic rockets were being launched, but track them accurately enough to possibly shoot them down with a missile defense system.
On May 7, the Air Force successfully sent to geosynchronous orbit GEO-1, the first SBIRS satellite. It was a long, tortuous road, lasting some 15 years with a price tag that will come to $10.4 billion — a huge increase from its original estimate of $4.1 billion. Government auditors laid the blame on poor contractor oversight, software development problems and difficulties in developing the new technology.
Now that the spacecraft is aloft after a nine-year delay, Air Force officials are eager to talk about the future — rather than the past — of the program formerly known as SBIRS-High.
“Certainly SBIRS has had its share of challenges through the years. [But] we have overcome the development issues,” Brig. Gen. (sel.) Roger W. Teague, the Air Force’s infrared space systems director, told reporters prior to the launch at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Both the SBIRS-High and SBIRS-Low programs were conceived almost two decades ago to replace the Air Force’s fleet of Defense Support Program satellites. The DSP spacecraft were designed to detect the launch of a missile using infrared sensors to pick up the engine’s heat signature.
They were only designed to warn authorities that a missile was launched. To actually stop one from reaching its target — a long-time goal of the Missile Defense Agency — would require an interceptor missile. That would require more precise tracking from the launch pad to the moment of interception. Ground-based radars can do that up to a certain point, but only if they are in the right locations. To get around the fact that some countries don’t want U.S. operated radars on their soil, a spaced-based system was proposed.
SBIRS-High, with up to four satellites in geosynchronous orbit some 24,000 miles above the Earth, would monitor the planet and pick up a heat signature as soon as a rocket fired up its engines. SBIRS-Low, placed in low-Earth elliptical orbits, would not only pick up the missile launch, but track the rocket after it lost its heat signature when its engines ceased firing and all the way to the moment of impact.
In 2001, the Missile Defense Agency took over the SBIRS-Low program and renamed it the Space Tracking and Surveillance System. The Air Force kept the “high” mission, but dropped that word from the SBIRS moniker.
As a stopgap, and to supplement coverage, there are infrared sensors hosted on other spacecraft placed in highly elliptical orbits to augment the system. These HEO satellites have long dwell times as they reach their highest altitudes at around 20,000 miles. Such orbits are particularly helpful in monitoring Russia, which is at a high latitude and therefore, tougher for geostationary satellites to peer down on.
The main difference between the DSP legacy missile warning satellites and SBIRS is that the sensors are far more sensitive and can pick up heat signatures that are “dimmer,” Teague said. That will also allow analysts to apply the infrared-detecting technology to a variety of other applications.
The satellite will also be able to simultaneously scan large swaths of the planet while also “staring” at a single point of interest, Teague noted.
Missile warning will always be the number one mission for SBIRS, but the military and intelligence communities will be able to use the data for a variety of “things,” Teague said.
When pressed to answer what these “things” were, he said he had to be intentionally vague. The only nonclassified mission he mentioned was assisting the U.S. Forest Service in detecting fires.
“It is far more than just missile warning,” he said. The data could be real-time information that is passed on to battlefield commanders. It could also be “technical intelligence” — data that is forwarded to analysts in the spy communities where it is studied at a more methodical pace in order to come up with a picture of what adversaries are planning.
“They are complementary and similar missions; it’s just a difference in time,” Teague said.
A former Air Force official who worked on the SBIRS program said there were four stated missions for the program: missile warning, missile defense, battle space awareness and technical intelligence.
As for the latter, SBIRS can give analysts a better understanding of what potential adversaries are doing.
“They do test flights like we do test flights,” said the one-time officer, who declined to be named because he now works for a contractor.
Almost 37 years after the first infrared sensors were launched into space for the purpose of detecting rockets, scientists were still discovering new ways to use the data for other purposes, he noted.
“It shows that when you have a highly capable system like this, there is a long period of recognizing everything that it can do,” he said.
The space tracking and surveillance system — the program formerly known as SBIRS-Low — is moving at a slower pace. Current plans call for the Missile Defense Agency to have its first satellites in orbit by 2018, said Doug Young, vice president of missile defense at Northrop Grumman.
There are now two Northrop Grumman-built experimental spacecraft in orbit that are demonstrating some of the technologies that will be aboard the STSS satellites. Northrop also contributed the payload for the Lockheed Martin-built SBIRS satellite.
Once the satellites are in orbit, the military will be able to track a rocket from the moment its engines fire up at a launching point until it reaches its target, or is intercepted if the MDA’s long-standing goal of shooting down a missile with a missile ever comes to fruition.
“Birth-to-death tracking has never been done from space before,” Young said. “It has taken decades of technology development to get to this point.”
After the boost phase of a missile is finished and its engines shut down, analysts can do the calculations to project where they think it might end up, but that is not precise.
“It is not accurate enough information to target an interceptor and shoot it down,” Young said.
Ground-based radars can be employed to track missiles and are good for indicating ranges, but they can’t see the angle — and therefore the trajectory — well. Also, fixed and mobile radars cannot provide blanket coverage of the globe.
The STSS sensors, if deployed on a fleet of spacecraft circling in low-Earth orbit, can pick up the angle the rocket is traveling, Young said.
One of the key capabilities being tested on the two demonstration satellites is the ability to hand off the tracking of a missile to ground-based or space-based systems. Eventually, the SBIRS satellites, after picking up a launch from their stationary perches, should be able to transfer the tracking to an STSS spacecraft, or vice versa.
Plans call for Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory to build the first few STSS spacecraft and then open up the competition to industry for the fleet of six to 12 satellites.
As for SBIRS, the second satellite is scheduled for launch in 2012. GEO-1 will be performing on orbit checkouts this year.
Lockheed Martin has contracts to build the third and fourth satellites.