Delta 2 rocket launches missile defense satellites
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: September 25, 2009
A Delta 2 rocket powered two experimental missile-tracking satellites into orbit today to test advanced technologies for the nation's defense against enemy attacks.
The two-stage rocket aimed for a 730-nautical-mile circular orbit inclined 58 degrees to the either side of the equator to release the tandem demonstration satellites for the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, a $1.5 billion project known as STSS Demo.
"The Delta 2 performed just perfect," said NASA launch manager Omar Baez. "We inserted the satellites at about a-tenth-of-a-mile higher than what was targeted. So we are very happy."
The satellites will be used by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency to test the "birth to death" tracking of missiles from launch to re-entry.
"Our ability to track targets through all phases of flight is what makes STSS unique compared to other missile warning systems, which only track during the boost phase," said Lt. Col. Matthew Murdough, an MDA representative.
The STSS Demo mission has been in the works for years and has roots reaching back to the Reagan Administration's Star Wars program.
"The launch and deployment this morning from the Delta 2 rocket went flawlessly. Both satellites are in their expected orbits, both are safe, communicating with the ground station, responding to commands and receiving solar power," said Rear Adm. Joseph Horn, deputy director of the Missile Defense Agency.
"The STSS Demo program represents an investment of approximately $1.5 billion in cutting edge technologies, spacecraft assembly and test, and spacecraft operations center capability," the MDA told Spaceflight Now.
Northrop Grumman built the spacecraft and was responsible for overall satellite integration, plus the ground control system. The satellites' sensors were made by Raytheon.
The two craft, weighing nearly 5,000 pounds at launch and each having pairs of power-generating solar wings, are equipped with infrared and visible sensors to spot missile launches, track the vehicles through space and observe the entry back into the atmosphere. By working together from separate vantage points in low-Earth orbit, their imagery will combine to provide 3-D tracking of objects.
"The STSS satellites will demonstrate the unique value of a space-based sensor for the Ballistic Missile Defense System. Space-based systems have inherently long range, are not limited by geographic constraints, and collect infrared tracking and discrimination data that complements conventional ground and sea-based radars," the MDA says.
The U.S. government has long considered fielding constellations of missile-tracking satellites like STSS. Whether such a system is constructed could hinge on how these two demonstration craft perform.
"STSS will demonstrate the key functions of a space-based sensor, passing missile tracking data to missile defense interceptors with the accuracy and timeliness necessary to enable them to successfully intercept missile targets," says Northrop Grumman.
"STSS is the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's only space-based midcourse tracking system. Using onboard sensors capable of detecting infrared and visible light, STSS will become part of land-, sea-, air- and space-based Ballistic Missile Defense System sensors."
The MDA has no funding or firm plans for developing any satellites beyond the two demonstration craft launching Wednesday. The real-life results from space using MDA's own missile test-launches, including two specifically configured for STSS viewing, could give the political boost needed for Congress to fund a future operational program.
"The greatest hedge against missile defense threats of all ranges remains a highly available early missile tracking capability from space. Decisions on any follow-on programs will be made based on the performance of the STSS satellites," MDA told Spaceflight Now.
The STSS Demo mission is expected to last two to four years.
Horn said the results of the demonstration "will guide our decisions on the development of an affordable, continuously available, operational, precision-track space sensor constellation."
The requirements for an operational network of orbiting satellites are not yet spelled out, Horn said, but "what we expect to learn from these two demonstrators is exactly that, the (number) of satellites necessary to support a constellation and provide that continuous precision tracking information."
These two craft follow a quasi-classified research and development testbed satellite launched in May aboard a Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Valued at $400 million, that mission is known as the Advanced Technology Risk Reduction, or STSS-ATRR.
An earlier research craft called the Near Field Infrared Experiment, or NFIRE, was launched for the MDA in 2007 aboard a Minotaur rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia. It tested sensor technology to provide high resolution imagery of missiles and their plumes.
The Missile Defense Space Experimentation Center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs is the control site for the four satellites under the MDA umbrella.
"Collections by all four satellites provide a unique opportunity to validate technology and sensor performance from different platforms," the MDA says.
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