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Air Force recoups costs to save stranded AEHF satellite

Posted: June 14, 2011

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TONBRIDGE, England -- Lockheed Martin will offset up to $25 million in investigation and recovery costs stemming from a U.S. Air Force communications satellite launched last year that failed to reach its orbital station using a liquid-fueled boost engine, according to military officials.

Artist's concept of an AEHF satellite in orbit. Credit: Lockheed Martin
The aerospace contractor agreed to forego $15 million in awards and signed off on a restructured contract to incentivize cost reductions. The Air Force says the two-pronged approach will "offset anomaly investigation and recovery costs."

Steve Tatum, a Lockheed Martin spokesperson, confirmed the agreement in a written statement.

According to an Air Force spokesperson, the total cost of the anomaly investigation and recovery is estimated between $22 million and $25 million.

The Air Force's first Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, or AEHF 1, blasted off in August 2010. Deployed in the targeted elliptical transfer orbit by an Atlas 5 rocket, AEHF 1 was supposed to fire its Liquid Apogee Engine three times to raise its altitude, then engineers planned more burns with smaller thrusters to circularize its orbit at an altitude of 22,300 miles over the equator.

But the engine didn't work, and Air Force officials scrambled to devise a new plan for the costly satellite to reach the planned orbit.

The Pentagon spent nearly $6.5 billion on the first three AEHF communications satellites, including costs to order parts for a fourth platform. The Air Force authorized the production of the fourth spacecraft in December.

Since late last year, small electric Hall Current Thrusters have steadily pulsed to drive AEHF 1 higher and closer to the equator. The thrusters use electricity and xenon gas as propellant, and although their thrust is much lower than chemically-fueled engines, they can fire for thousands of hours.

As of June 6, the low point of the satellite's orbit was 17,514 miles and its inclination was about 6.2 degrees, according to an Air Force statement.

The satellite will operate in a circular orbit 22,300 miles high and with an inclination of 4.8 degrees, so there is still work to go.

The Air Force extended its timeline for the orbit-raising process, and officials now expect the process to be complete by Oct. 3. The previous plan called for AEHF 1 to be in the correct orbit by Aug. 31.

"This extension does not affect the initial operational capability date and provides additional fuel reserves to support potential future contingency operations," the Air Force statement said.

The investigation into the propulsion anomaly is finished, but the Air Force is not releasing the results.

"While senior leadership has been briefed with the results of the anomaly investigation team, details of the root cause are not publicly releasable at this time," an Air Force spokesperson told Spaceflight Now.

Once AEHF 1 reaches the 22,300-mile altitude, controllers will turn on its communications payload and begun months of testing.

"After reaching its intended orbit, the satellite's sophisticated communications payload will be activated and a detailed checkout will be completed before operational service is initiated by the Air Force," Tatum said.

According to Tatum, Lockheed Martin and the Air Force have declared the propulsion systems on the second and third AEHF satellites to be flight-ready.

The AEHF satellites will provide secure, jam-resistant communications for the military's ground, sea and air forces, linking troops on the battlefield with commanders and national leaders through data, voice and video.

Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom will also use AEHF satellites.

The Air Force plans to launch the second AEHF spacecraft in the first half of 2012 on another Atlas 5 rocket.