Fulfilling its critical mission to protect Americans on the battlefield and in the homeland, on May 18, the U.S. Space Force launched a Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS GEO-5) satellite. In a previous article on the U.S. space program, Liberty Nation has described America’s competition in the realms outside the earth’s atmosphere. The good news is that the new U.S. Space Force is taking advantage of the enormous technological achievements of our space industry to improve the safety net against enemy missile and rocket launches.
According to Nathan Strout writing for C4ISRNET, the launch took place at 1:37 p.m. as the Atlas V rocket manufactured by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture company, left the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Atlas V took just 45 minutes from liftoff to orbit, where the SBIRS satellite took its place in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) approximately 22,000 miles above the earth. In this position on the earth’s equator, the satellite rotates with the earth’s rotation keeping station so that the satellite sensors have a continuous view of the same geographic area of the planet.
Persistent coverage of the entire earth comes from having a constellation of several SBIRS satellites strategically position around the globe. From this position, the SBIRS satellites can detect high-heat sources on the globe’s surface like a rocket or missile launch.
The value of this capability is for early warning of a missile attack so that citizens or soldiers can take immediate shelter.
Such was the case in Iraq during an Iranian rocket attack, as Strout explains,
“The Space-Based Infrared System provides 24/7 coverage of the globe, detecting the launch of missiles and providing a critical early warning of possible threats to American warfighters. For instance, the satellite system provided U.S. and allied forces a last-minute warning to seek cover when Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at bases in Iraq in January 2020. In 2019, the constellation detected nearly a thousand missile launches.”
The latest SBIRS launch places in orbit the fifth and next to the last satellite to make up the current SBIRS constellation. The U.S. Air Force Space Command publication “Space-Based Infrared System” fact sheet describes the features of the SBIRS satellite system. The information portrays the satellite array as a “militarized, radiation-hardened space craft, providing power, attitude control, command and control, and communications subsystem with five separate data downlinks to meet mission requirements, including system survivability and endurability.”
The missile launch detection capability consists of two infrared scanners that continuously scan for any significant heat sources like a rocket or missile launch.
The hot burning gases immitted from a rocket or missile are detected. That sensor information is passed to ground stations that analyze the heat signature to determine the launch point and what the potential target might be.
The satellite designated DSP or Defense Support Program is a system of geostationary satellites first launched in 1970, that SBIRS will replace when all six SBIRS satellites are in orbit and functioning correctly. The SBIRS group of satellites will work in coordination with Consolidated Ground Stations, Relocatable Terminals for downlinks, LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites, Relay Ground Stations, and HEO (High Earth Orbit) satellites.
Just as each successive SBIRS satellite placed in orbit has provided incrementally more functionality, “enhancements, robustness, and different capabilities,” the current satellite detection program will be the bridge to its replacement, “Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared System or Next-OPIR” in development. The exact capabilities of Next-Gen OPIR are unknown; however, former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson “suggested the new system will be ‘simpler’ and more survivable to enemy attacks,” according to Sandra Erwin reporting for SpaceNews.
As Liberty Nation reported, the “National Space Strategy” depends on the reliability and availability of all of the U.S. space-based defense systems. Each of the systems is an essential key to the overall use of space to protect the continental U.S. as well as our combat forces deployed around the globe. The successful launch of SBIRS GEO-5 places another crucial piece into its position in the U.S. space defense mosaic.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
Read more from Dave Patterson.