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Fourth SBIRS launch joins missile-warning constellation

22 Jan 2018

Lockheed Martin confirms that scan-and-stare sensors payload is communicating with US Air Force following Florida launch.

The fourth payload making up the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), primarily for missile surveillance, has launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, US.

Lead contractor Lockheed Martin, which built the “GEO Flight-4” satellite, announced shortly after the launch that the payload was in communication with the US Air Force division overseeing SBIRS operations

Considered to be one of the US military’s highest-priority space programs, SBIRS is designed to provide global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities.

That includes quickly identifying ballistic missile launches by detecting the signature infrared radiation generated by the hot exhaust that they produce. Through a network of both geosynchronous and orbiting satellites, the intention is to have complete global coverage.

Equipped with powerful scanning and staring infrared surveillance sensors, the satellite network also supports ballistic missile defense, while expanding technical intelligence gathering and situational awareness in conflict zones.

Although two more SBIRS launches are in the pipeline, this latest satellite completes the initial constellation, and once moved into geostationary orbit it will allow the SBIRS network to provide global, round-the-clock coverage coverage.

Optics tech
The optics and photonics technology on board each SBIRS satellite includes short-wave infrared (SWIR), mid-wave infrared (MWIR) and “see-to-ground” sensor chips, short Schmidt telescopes with dual optical pointing capability, and precision gimbals. Among the sub-contractors involved in the project are goal coatings specialist Epner Technology.

“SBIRS is the nation's 24-7 global watchman, with infrared eyes ready to detect and deliver early warning and tracking of ballistic missiles,” reckons Tom McCormick, VP of Lockheed’s “overhead persistent infrared systems” mission area.

He describes SBIRS as a "cornerstone" of the US missile defense system, and adds that it is proving to be more precise and powerful than expected. “We're already improving on SBIRS, upgrading our fifth and sixth SBIRS GEO satellites to our modernized LM 2100 satellite bus at no additional cost to the Air Force,” he claimed in a Lockheed release. “On SBIRS 5 and 6 the Air Force saved $1 billion through improved production and management efficiencies.”

After severe initial cost overruns, the first SBIRS payload was launched back in May 2011, with numbers two and three following in May 2013 and January 2017. In June 2014, Lockheed was awarded a $1.9 billion contract to build the fifth and sixth elements of the network by 2022.

Lockheed has also made progress on the ground at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado, where it says that a sophisticated new SBIRS ground control system serves as the “nerve center” for the entire SBIRS satellite constellation.

It receives vast amounts of data from the satellites’ various sensors, with operators converting the raw data into actionable reports for defense, intelligence and civil applications.

The defense giant added: “In late 2016, Lockheed Martin completed a major upgrade SBIRS’ ground control system. The new ‘SBIRS Block 10’ system includes enhancements like faster data collection times, improved threat detections, and improved target tracking and infrared information to enable troops to see dimmer targets faster.”

The GEO-4 payload is now transitioning to its final location in geostationary orbit, at an altitude of around 22,000 miles. Once there, the satellite's solar arrays, light shade and antennae will be deployed to begin on-orbit testing.

SBIRS GEO-4 launch video:

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