The Pentagon’s goal of having an advanced network of infrared missile and early-warning satellites, fully operational in geosynchronous orbit, more than 22,000 miles above our heads, drew a step closer to reality this evening, with the spectacular liftoff of United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas V 401 at 5:21 p.m. EDT. The mission was staged from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and occurred precisely on time at the start of a 40-minute “window.” Aboard the Atlas was SBIRS GEO-2, the second member of the multi-billion-dollar Space-Based Infrared System to be destined for Geosynchronous Earth Orbit.
According to the Pentagon and SBIRS’ prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, the system represents the latest effort to replace the outdated Defense Support Program (DSP) of infrared early-warning satellites, whose ancestry stretches back to the early 1970s. It is confidently expected that SBIRS will enable the United States’ space surveillance needs for at least the next two decades, with specific focuses including advanced early warning, missile defense, and battlespace characterization. In its final form, it will comprise at least four satellites in geosynchronous orbit, together with sensors hosted aboard two others in highly-elliptical orbits (HEO-1 and 2)—which were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in June 2006 and March 2008—and an expansive ground-based command, control, and data-processing network. Following numerous delays, caused by software malfunctions and other hardware deficiencies, the first dedicated Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO-1) SBIRS was successfully lofted from Cape Canaveral, atop an Atlas V 401, in May 2011.