Space

The Space Force’s next missile warning satellite is ready for a 2021 launch

WASHINGTON — The next satellite for the U.S. Space Force’s missile warning constellation is finished and ready for its 2021 launch date, according to primary manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

The company announced Dec. 2 that work on the fifth geosynchronous Space Based Infrared System satellite (SBIRS GEO-5) was officially completed back in October.

“Completing the production of a complex missile-warning satellite during the challenging COVID environment is a huge accomplishment and is a testament to Lockheed Martin’s professionalism and dedication to the security of our Nation,” said Capt. Alec Cook, Space and Missile Systems Center’s SBIRS GEO-5/6 Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations lead, in a statement.

SBIRS GEO-5 and 6 will be the final additions to SBIRS, the U.S. military’s primary missile warning satellite constellation. Built by Lockheed Martin but featuring infrared sensors from Northrop Grumman, the constellation allows the military to detect ballistic missile launches all around the world.

“SBIRS’ role as an ever-present, on-orbit guardian against global ballistic missile threats has never been more critical,” Tom McCormick, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) Systems, said in a statement. “In 2019 alone, SBIRS detected nearly one thousand missile launches, which is about a two-fold increase in two years.”

Perhaps most notably, the Space Force acknowledged in September that SBIRS was used to detect ballistic missiles launched from Iran at U.S. and allied forces in the region in January, providing a critical early warning to seek cover.

According to Space Force Chief of Space Operations General John “Jay” Raymond, the 2nd Space Warning Squadron coordinated optimal sensor coverage of the region as tensions escalated between the U.S. and Iran in the lead up to the attack. The Pentagon claimed two dozen ballistic missiles were launched against U.S. military and coalition forces on Jan. 7, with reportedly 10 of the missiles hit Al Assad Air Base. There were ultimately no casualties, and Raymond credited the early warning provided by the 2nd Space Warning Squadron and SBIRS with saving lives.

Currently, SBIRS includes four satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit and two hosted payloads in highly elliptical orbits, ensuring 24/7 global coverage. The four primary satellites include two sensors: A scanner which continuously monitors the earth, and a step-starer which can provide more accurate coverage for theater missions. The two hosted SBIRS payloads have just the scanning sensor.

Lockheed Martin was awarded $1.86 billion back in 2014 to build the fifth and sixth SBIRS GEO satellites — replacements for the first two satellites in the constellation. Plans for two more SBIRS satellites after that were scrapped by Congress in 2018, with the focus and funding being shifted to a successor program, Next Gen Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next Gen OPIR).

Lockheed Martin was awarded $2.9 billion in August 2018 to build the three geosynchronous satellites for that constellation, while Northrop Grumman was awarded $2.375 billion to build two additional satellites that will provide coverage of the polar regions. The U.S. Air Force has pushed hard to shift more money into Next Gen OPIR’s budget early, speeding up the development timeline to just five years — an aggressive schedule for a new military satellite. The first Next Gen OPIR satellite is slated to launch in 2025.

Like the final two SBIRS GEO satellites, Next Gen OPIR will be built on Lockheed Martin’s upgraded, modular LM 2100 combat bus, designed for improved resiliency, cyber-hardening, power and propulsion. The company also claims that the new bus also features a flexible design and common components that streamline manufacturing.

“We added even further enhanced resiliency features to the LM 2100 to create an initial ‘combat bus’ for the Space Force. SBIRS GEO-5 has proven itself a valuable incremental step towards achieving the resilient missile warning that will be provided by the Next Gen OPIR Block 0 System, the follow-on to SBIRS,” said McCormick.

In addition to the two SBIRS satellites and the three Next Gen OPIR satellites, the LM 2100 bus will be used for the GPS III Follow-on satellites being built by the company.

SBIRS and Next Gen OPIR aren’t the only missile warning payloads that the U.S. military plans to launch in the coming years.

The Space Development Agency is building a new missile tracking layer as part of its National Defense Space Architecture — a proliferated constellation that will be made up of hundreds of satellites performing myriad functions. Unlike SBIRS and Next Gen OPIR, the tracking layer satellites will be in low Earth order. This will enable them to detect and track hypersonic weapons, which are dimmer and harder for the GEO satellites to pick up. SDA has issued contracts to SpaceX and L3Harris to build the tracking layer satellites, although those awards have been protested by some of their competitors.

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