March 2, 2024

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launched a $1.2 billion early warning satellite into orbit in spectacular fashion Thursday. It is the sixth and final member of a fleet spanning the globe that is on constant alert for strategic missile threats, in theater and ultrasonic weapons.

Rocket launch
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasts off carrying the sixth and final Space Based Infrared System missile early warning satellite.

William Harwood/CBS News

“Threats are rapidly evolving and modernizing,” Col. Brian Denaro, the US Space Force’s Space Sensing program official, said before the launch. “Part of that evolution is a series of possibilities that are not only more unpredictable, but they’re dimmer, they burn out faster. Bottom line, they’re harder to see.

“It is absolutely critical that our integrated family of systems that provide this airborne fixed infrared (IR) capability not only be able to detect the missiles, but be able to track them throughout their flight and then report these events in a relevant time frame so that we can commit to these objectives”.

In an ironic reminder of past commercial ties, the Geosynchronous Earth Orbit Space-Based Infrared System satellite — SBIRS GEO 6 — relied on the Russian-made Atlas 5 RD-180 first-stage engine to propel it out of the lower atmosphere in a dramatic early morning climb into space.

The RD-180, along with two Northrop Grumman strap-on solid-fuel boosters, ignited with a burst of fiery exhaust at 6:29 AM. EDT, 17 minutes before sunrise, quickly pushing the 194-foot-tall rocket away from Launch Pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

As the rocket climbed into the rising sunlight, the exhaust plume turned a brilliant shade of orange before narrowing to a striking white trail after the belt boosters dropped, a high-altitude sight visible for dozens of miles around.

It was the first of two scheduled Florida launches just 12.5 hours apart, with SpaceX preparing for an evening Falcon 9 flight from nearby pad 40 to put a South Korean science craft into orbit toward the moon.

Space flight now said the two launches would set new records for most rockets lifted off from Florida’s Space Coast in a year — 34 — and the shortest time between two orbital flights since 1967.

The Atlas 5 rocket climbs into space after liftoff
As Atlas 5 climbed into the sunlight, its exhaust plume turned a brilliant shade of orange before the rocket dropped its two strap-on solid-fuel boosters and continued its ascent into space in a spectacle visible for miles around.

William Harwood/CBS News

The Atlas 5 flight plan called for SBIRS GEO 6 to be released into a highly elliptical orbit after three firings of Centaur’s second stage Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1-1 engine over a three-hour period. If all goes well, onboard thrusters will be used to put the satellite into a circular orbit 22,300 miles above the equator.

At this geosynchronous altitude, the satellites take 24 hours to complete one orbit and thus rotate relative to the planet below, providing a constant hemispheric view.

Built by Lockheed Martin, the SBIRS GEO 6 satellite is equipped with sensitive “staring” and scanning sensors to monitor the planet below for the telltale thermal signatures of rocket engines in flight.

The two newest members of the constellation, GEO 5, launching in May 2021, and GEO 6, feature improved cyber-hardening, better radiation resistance, more electrical power and improved onboard propulsion.

An artist’s impression of an orbiting SBIRS satellite.

Lockheed Martin

Working around the clock with other SBIRS early warning satellites and older Defense Support Program satellites, the system provides overlapping views that allow computers to quickly locate, track and predict where incoming missiles might be headed.

“It’s a complete system of capabilities, integrated end-to-end to provide … not just the messaging and the warning, but the ability to do something about it,” Denaro said.

“Our entire integrated team across the Department of Defense is focused on getting those messages where they need to go on the timeline necessary to engage the target and respond in a timely manner.”

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