US missile tracking capabilities are about to be enhanced.
United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched the sixth SBIRS GEO-6 (Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit) satellite this morning (August 4), completing the SBIRS GEO constellation for the United States. space forceSpace Systems Command (SSC).
A Atlas V The rocket carrying the missile detection satellite lifted off at 6:29 a.m. EDT (1029 GMT) today from the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida. The rocket’s two stages separated just over four minutes into flight, setting up the Centaur upper stage with SBIRS GEO-6 for a series of engine burns.
If all goes as planned, these burns will end about three hours after takeoff. Shortly thereafter, Centaur will deploy SBIRS GEO-6 into orbit.
Related: The most dangerous space weapons of all time
SBIRS GEO-6 will join five other satellites, completing a tracking constellation of ballistic missiles in geostationary orbit, about 22,200 miles (35,700 kilometers) above Earth, that can detect threats around the world. Each SBIRS GEO satellite is in a different location, allowing wide coverage of the globe.
The launch of SBIRS GEO-6 fills the last gap in the satellite chain and ends the development phase of the SBIRS program. The newly installed satellite’s suite of observation technologies will provide “infrared surveillance to support missile warning, missile defense, battlespace awareness and technical intelligence,” according to a SSC press release (opens in a new tab). (This “infrared monitoring” involves noticing heat signatures generated by missile exhaust.)
The SBIRS GEO-6 was built by aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin, using the company’s LM 2100 combat bus. SBIRS GEO-5, which launched in May 2021, was also built on the LM 2100 platform but is the only other satellite in the constellation with this particular upgrade. The LM 2100 battle bus stands just over 12 feet (3.7 meters) tall and offers SBIRS GEO-5 and 6 improved electronics, maneuverability, surveillance capabilities and more, officials said. SSC.
Col. Daniel Walter, senior materiel chief for SSC’s Strategic Missile Warning Acquisition Delta, detailed some of the satellite’s capabilities. “SBIRS satellites are the first line of defense, providing early warning, launch detection and notifications to national leaders and theater warfighters,” he said in the statement.
SBIRS GEO-1 was launched in 2011, followed by the rest of its company between 2013 and 2021. As SBIRS GEO-6 ends this series of launches, SSC’s next-generation missile detection system technology has already started its development.
Known as the Next Generation Persistent Infrared Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (Next Generation OPIR) system, the revised weapons tracking satellite platform is designed to initially enhance, and eventually replace, the SBIRS GEO constellation.
In addition to the capabilities of its predecessors, the next-generation OPIR will be able to warn against “counterspace and emerging missile threats,” the SSC press release states. This includes highly maneuverable hypersonic weapons like the Kinzhal missile announced by Russian state media in 2018, which can supposedly travel five times faster than the speed of sound.
An Atlas V launched the Wide Field of View (WFOV) satellite for the Space Force last month. WFOV serves as the first orbital testbed for next-generation OPIR and is expected to remain in service until the first satellite of the OPIR program reaches orbit, currently targeted for some time in 2025.
Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or on Facebook (opens in a new tab).