United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket blasted off its Cape Canaveral launch pad on Friday on a six-hour ascent to geosynchronous orbit, deploying a classified payload and a U.S. Space Force satellite to test an improved infrared thermal sensor design that could help detection and tracking of enemy hypersonic missiles.
The mission, designated USSF-12, launched the two Space Force satellites into a target orbit more than 22,400 miles (about 36,100 kilometers) above the equator, according to ULA. The spacecraft is expected to maneuver into its final operating positions several hundred miles lower in the geostationary belt, where it will orbit in sync with Earth’s rotation.
One of the payloads, called the Wide Field of View Testbed, will demonstrate a new instrument design that could help the military better warn of a missile attack. The USSF-12 Ring spacecraft, which moves under the WFOV Testbed payload during the launch sequence, hosts classified experiments and technical demonstration payloads.
Launching a day late after stormy weather canceled Thursday’s countdown, Atlas 5 fired its Russian RD-180 main engine and four mounted rocket boosters at 7:15 a.m. EDT (23:15 GMT) Friday to begin the fourth mission of the year for the United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Friday’s countdown was also delayed due to bad weather. The Atlas 5 launch team waited more than an hour until electrically charged anvil clouds and upper-level winds became more favorable for liftoff.
Time concerns dropped, and ULA engineers gave the go-ahead to begin the final four minutes of the countdown, which culminated in Atlas 5’s fiery exit from Florida’s Space Coast.
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral, carrying two US Space Force experimental satellites on a six-hour ascent to geosynchronous orbit. https://t.co/f4AQ790G43 pic.twitter.com/Gbrdl2BeAi
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The rocket headed east, carrying 2.3 million pounds of thrust, and exceeded the speed of sound in less than a minute as it disappeared into a cloud deck. Onboard cameras showed the rocket ejecting its four boosters and payload fairing as the RD-180 kerosene-powered engine powered the Atlas 5 for the first four minutes of flight.
The RD-180 engine hit its targets on Friday, giving good performance to launch the Space Force mission. Friday’s launch marked the 100th flight of the RD-180 engine — all successful — since its debut on Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 3 rocket in May 2000. The Atlas 3 was a bridge program between older versions of the Atlas and Atlas 5 family of rockets.
ULA retires Atlas 5 and stops using Russian engines. After Friday night’s flight, the company has 22 Atlas 5 missions left on the books. ULA’s new rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, will be powered by all American engines.
After the first stage completed its burn and separated to fall into the Atlantic Ocean, Atlas 5’s Centaur upper stage ignited an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine for the first of three launches to place the USSF-12 payloads into their target orbit.
The first two burns put the satellites into a parking orbit and then into an elliptical or oval transfer orbit. Centaur’s upper stage coasted to its target altitude more than 22,000 miles above Earth, the RL10 engine reignited to make a circular orbit.
The WFOV Testbed spacecraft separated from the Centaur stage at 1:04 a.m. EDT (0504 GMT). A special adapter structure launched about 10 minutes later, allowing the USSF-12 Ring spacecraft to deploy from the rocket at 1:20 a.m. EDT (0520 GMT) Saturday.
ULA declared the launch a success in a press release early Saturday.
“This mission once again demonstrates ULA’s unparalleled ability to precisely deliver the nation’s most critical assets to a highly complex orbit,” said Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president for government and commercial programs. “Our strong partnership with the USSF team is essential to maintaining our nation’s security advantage and achieving robust mission security.”
The Space Force’s Wide Field of View, or WFOV, test satellite was one of the payloads of the USSF-12 mission. The WFOV Testbed satellite is a demonstrator for a next-generation space-based sensor designed to detect missile launches and provide early warning of a missile attack.
Built in El Segundo, Calif., by Millennium Space Systems, a Boeing subsidiary, the WFOV Testbed satellite carries an optical observation instrument to detect exhaust gases from missile launches, demonstrating the wide-range sensor for future use in operational early warning of military systems.
The WFOV mission will demonstrate the optical sensor technology for use in future missile warning missions in the Space Force’s Persistent Infrared, or OPIR, program. The next-generation OPIR missions will replace the Spaceborne Infrared System, or SBIRS, missile warning satellites that currently provide missile detection and early warning coverage.
The Space Force is partnering with the Space Agency and the Missile Defense Agency on a fleet of next-generation low-Earth-orbit and geosynchronous-orbit missile warning satellites.
Col. Brian Denaro, executive director of the Space Force’s space surveillance program, said the WFOV Testbed mission will “expand our capabilities to identify and characterize targets.” It is an important prototype for the sustainable integrated missile warning, tracking and missile defense architecture.”
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The infrared sensor on the WFOV Testbed satellite was developed by L3Harris. The space force said the infrared instrument has “first-in-class sensor sensitivity” across its wide field of view, capable of tracking dark targets over large areas. The new sensor technology is needed as threats shift from mostly large ballistic missiles to smaller projectiles such as hypersonic cruise missiles.
“The threat is certainly evolving at an unprecedentedly rapid pace that we’ve never seen before,” Denaro said. “We’re looking at a range of targets and missiles in the hypersonic region that are much more maneuverable, they’re weaker, they’re harder to see. And that requires a new approach to how we detect and then track all these missiles throughout their flight.
“We’re seeing these developments in both China and Russia at a very rapid pace that we need to develop these above-ground systems that can evolve to keep up with these changing directions,” Denaro said.
The SBIRS satellites carry scanning and viewing sensors, while the mission’s WFOV Testbed instrument can collect data with a single sensor. The last SBIRS satellite is scheduled to launch in August on the next Atlas 5 rocket, and the first OPIR next-generation missile warning satellite is scheduled to launch in 2025 or 2026.
The WFOV Testbed “can simultaneously perform strategic missions, such as missile warning and battlespace awareness, as well as tactical missions directly supporting the warfighter, continuously monitoring up to one-third of the Earth’s surface with just one sensor,” said Col. Heather Bogsti, senior equipment manager for Sustained Missile Warning, Tracking and Protection at the Space Systems Command.
The L3Harris instrument also features a “tactical cryocooler” to cool its infrared detectors. The cheaper cryocooler was originally designed to fly on airplanes, but has been repurposed for space.
The missile warning demonstration satellite — about a quarter the size of the current generation of Space Force SBIRS satellites — is designed for a three-year mission, with a total mass of up to 6,600 pounds (3,000 kilograms), according to Millennium.
The L3Harris payload is more than 6 feet (2 meters) tall and weighs more than 365 miles (165 kilograms). The instrument was developed at the L3Harris facility in Wilmington, Massachusetts.
“The L3Harris instrument can continuously look at a theater of interest to provide current information about the battlespace, which is an improvement over legacy systems,” said Ed Zois, president of space and air systems at L3Harris. “It also provides better resolution, sensitivity and target discrimination at a lower cost.”
The second satellite aboard the USSF-12 mission carries a set of classified payloads.
The space force says the USSF-12 Ring spacecraft is based on a “ring-based structure” capable of hosting multiple experiments and prototype technologies. The military has not said what experiments might be mounted on the USSF 12 Ring spacecraft, or whether it carries mobile free-flying satellites that will separate from the mother spacecraft to perform their own missions.
The USSF-12 Ring spacecraft is built on a Northrop Grumman satellite bus called ESPA Star, itself based on a ring structure originally designed to accommodate secondary payloads during launch. Northrop Grumman modified the ring structure with solar power and propulsion capabilities to function as a standalone satellite.
ULA’s next mission is scheduled for August with the SBIRS GEO 6 missile warning satellite.
The launch company has up to six more missions on its calendar for the rest of the year, including the launch of SBIRS and the final flights of the Delta 4-Heavy rocket and the Atlas 5 rocket from the West Coast Spaceport at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. The remaining Delta 4 and Atlas 5 flights will depart from Cape Canaveral.
ULA hopes to launch the first next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket from Florida by the end of the year. And the first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft could launch on an Atlas 5 rocket in late 2022.
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