C4ISR

ULA launches Air Force's 'space neighborhood watch' satellites

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated from its original version, which was written in advance of Wednesday’s scheduled launch.

UPDATE: The satellites were successfully launched Monday, July 28, after several days of delays.

As part of its effort to monitor space-based assets, the Air Force’s secretive space surveillance program is planning to put its first two satellites into orbit Friday evening, along with a separate, experimental satellite, after scrubbing scheduled launches Wednesday and Thursday.

United Launch Alliance is now scheduled to use a Delta IV rocket to launch three Air Force satellites into space at 6:55 p.m. EDT. ULA, the Lockheed Martin/Boeing venture that launches the majority of military satellites, will provide a live webcast beginning at 6:35 p.m. EDT. ULA said there is a 40 percent chance of favorable weather for the launch.

The payload includes two operational satellites that are a part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, and one experimental satellite that will be put into near-geosynchronous Earth orbit, according an Air Force release.

GSSAP is designed to collect space situational awareness data to track and characterize manmade orbiting assets. Information collected by the satellites would allow the Air Force to conduct more accurate orbital predictions and enhance space flight safety.

The satellites will support U.S. Strategic Command space surveillance operations as a part of the Space Surveillance Network. Another two GSSAP satellites are expected to be launched in 2016.

Meanwhile, the experimental satellite is a part of the Automated Navigation and Guidance Experiment for Local Space, or ANGELS, program and is managed by the Air Force Research Lab’s Space Vehicles Directorate. The satellite will be evaluating space situational awareness techniques while performing automated spacecraft operations.

The ANGELS program’s test will center on the discarded upper stage of the Delta IV launch vehicle used to put the satellites into space. The satellite will test maneuvering concepts around the rocket body, eventually moving within several kilometers of the object.

"These operational and experimental systems will enhance the nation's ability to monitor and assess events regarding our military and commercial systems,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in the release. “In essence, they will create a space neighborhood watch capability."

The Air Force has been looking for ways to protect its space assets, which the military heavily depends upon for C4ISR capabilities, from both accidents and intentional threats.

The secretive GSSAP program, which was unveiled early this year at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium and Technology exposition, would allow the Air Force to monitor space objects more effectively than ground-based systems that can be affected by the atmosphere or unfavorable weather conditions.

“GSSAP will present a significant improvement in space object surveillance, not only for better collision avoidance, but also for detecting threats,” Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space command, said at the expo. “GSSAP will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have, which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes.”

About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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