Modern Missile Defense: SBIRS Satellite Set to Launch

By Michael M. Jacobs, Principal Engineer, Aerospace Corporation. The Space Based Infrared System satellite is scheduled to launch on Friday May 6, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. You can watch the launch at

An upcoming launch of the United States Air Force Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite destined for geostationary earth orbit (GEO) will be another step in the transition from the Defense Support Program (DSP), a ballistic missile warning system born of the cold war, to the modernized and multi-mission SBIRS system. SBIRS GEO-1 satellite is scheduled for launch on 6 May 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) carrying a payload with a pair of infrared sensors, both of which bring improved detection sensitivity, increased sensor temporal frame rate, and extremely high pointing agility. Although it is a long time in coming, the SBIRS GEO satellite is expected to continue the evolution of the system, and also to generate a host of new military and civil applications of the infrared data.

SBIRS GEO satellite in final configuration before shipping to CCAFS

SBIRS GEO satellite in final configuration before shipping to CCAFS

This new GEO satellite will add to the modernization that began with the achievement of Initial Operations Capability of the SBIRS Mission Control Station (MCS) in 2001. Mission processing and control of DSP satellites was consolidated into a single Continental United States ground site, the MCS, and significantly improved the accuracy of the missile warning products produced by the system. Modernization continued with successful deployment of new infrared payloads that are deployed on host satellites in a highly-elliptical earth orbit (HEO), with operational acceptance achieved in 2008. The SBIRS HEO infrared payloads are highly sensitive instruments that are providing data collection for SBIRS missile warning and technical intelligence missions, and are also spawning new data exploitation initiatives. Data collected by the SBIRS HEO sensors are rich with new content heretofore not available, and scientists and engineers are seeking new data processing algorithms to dig deeper into the imagery. Indeed, unexpected observations have been discovered, already resulting in support to other government agencies (e.g., analysis of test failure) and new mission areas.

SBIRS GEO-1 carries a scanning sensor similar to, but more agile than, the already-deployed SBIRS HEO sensor, and a staring sensor. The scanning sensor will generally provide global surveillance, with the staring sensor intended to interrogate areas of interest around the globe with even more enhanced sensitivity and revisit time. Support to the theater missile warning mission, missile defense mission, technical intelligence mission, and the evolving battlespace awareness mission area, were the drivers for design of the GEO staring sensor. As a result, it will provide very fast re-pointing ability, high sensitivity, and small revisit time for areas of interest, as well as for tracking dim ballistic missiles to booster burnout. The staring sensor will also provide a mode of operation that allows it to continuously stare at a site with very high refresh rate, as well as flexibility in spectral band selection. Enhanced sensitivity and revisit time from the SBIRS sensors bring opportunity for earlier detection of missile launches, higher confidence detection of new dimmer and shorter-duration events, and more accurate estimation of missile trajectory parameters.

Although the SBIRS program plans are to bring the GEO scanning sensor into full mission operations within about 16 months of launch, the staring sensor will no doubt be used even before then, to collect data and perform mission processing off line. The off-line processing is expected to provide engineers opportunity to learn how to best process the data, understand the full capability of the sensor, and begin mining the observations for exploitation opportunities. Just as new missions evolved over the past 40 years by exploiting the DSP sensor data (e.g., for early warning of forest fires, volcano eruptions, to mention only a few) the same will surely occur with the new SBIRS sensors.

Within the SBIRS program, the thought is never far away of those who came before us, who developed the remarkable DSP satellite system, which was hugely successful and provided, and continues to contribute to, very reliable performance. We recognize the keen vision, superb engineering expertise, and passionate dedication of those who have gone before us. It is the foundation for SBIRS, and the act we strive to follow. As we continue the work of transitioning to the new system, we expect the new capabilities to even more strongly impact support to our war-fighters, and security for our country and allies. We also expect new visions to be created that will expand the overhead persistent infrared missions as we continue to move through the 21st century.

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