by Airman 1st Class Samantha Meadors
460th Space Wing Public Affairs
6/17/2015 - BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo.- -- Since the early 1970s, the Defense Support Program has been the backbone of the U.S. ballistic missile early warning system.
This once classified satellite first launched in 1970 providing
strategic surveillance with an infrared capability to detect long-range
ballistic missile launches.
The mission of the DSP satellite is to detect missile launches using its
infrared telescope that recognizes heat against the Earth's surface.
"In 1991, there were 12 foreign ballistic missile programs in the
world," Wagner said. "Today over three dozen countries openly
acknowledge a ballistic missile program and we have seen the
catastrophic effects when these countries use ballistic missiles against
each other or even against their own people. These missiles are
increasingly lethal and mobile with more reliable, accurate and
effective guidance systems. Technology enabled smaller, faster, more
accurate, more storable, and inherently more deployable missiles with
During Operation Desert Storm, the growth of nations with tactical
ballistic missile capability increased and DSP began to support troops
in the Persian Gulf War. After detecting Iraqi Scud launches and
providing timely warning to downrange users, DSP began to be used for
tactical detection as well.
Scientists are currently in the process of developing methods to use the
satellite as part of an early warning system for natural disasters like
volcanic eruptions and forest fires.
The DSP constellation was first put in place to address the missile threat posed by the former Soviet Union.
"To understand and counter the threat of a surprise nuclear attack
against the United States, we looked to air and then space because we
truly needed global reach to see deep into the Soviet Union," said Col.
John Wagner, 460th Space Wing commander.
"This was at a time when Soviet missile power was in our faces daily - particularly after the launch of Sputnik."
The early warning system took 15 minutes to provide warning of ballistic
missile attack, so national priority was placed on the space-based
system known as the Missile Defense Alarm System.
MIDAS was the first infrared detection technology that later became the basis for the DSP.
However, it took millions of taxpayer dollars and nine failed test
flights before MIDAS 7 achieved the planned circular orbit in 1963.
Since then, the DSP has been used to protect the U.S. and its allies
from smaller and faster threats.
"After these initial MIDAS hard lessons, we enjoyed over 40 years of
success with DSP," Wagner said. "This program was the first to use
mercury cadmium telluride -- the material of choice for today's infrared
sensors. Today's DSP spacecraft accommodates 6,000 detectors, uses
1,274 watts of power, weighs 5,200 pounds and is roughly the size of a
The DSP satellites orbit the earth approximately 22,000 miles over the
equator. The current DSP spacecraft is more survivable than its
predecessors, lasting much longer than designed. It was originally
intended to last 30 years, but has exceeded its lifespan over 15 years.
The DSP will eventually be replaced by the Space-Based Infrared System.
SBIRS is composed of highly elliptical orbit and geosynchronous Earth
The satellites' extreme accuracy and precision are designed to deliver
timely and precise warning for missile launches to the U.S. government
"Imagine you're on a bus," said Col. Michael Guetlein, Remote Sensing
Systems Directorate program director. "You're 22,000 miles away. You're
moving 6,000 miles an hour. You're swinging a 1,000 pound telescope left
and right at 10 times a second, 100 percent accuracy, and I want you to
do that for 10 years. I want you to be looking down at the earth and I
want you to pick out any heat event on the entire face of the earth.
And I want you to discriminate that event from the background. I want
you to be able to tell me, is it a missile launch or is it a reflection
off the ocean surface?"
That's what our satellites are out there doing, he added.
The SBIRS constellation falls under the Overhead Persistence Infrared
program. The constant surveillance of the satellites keeps the U.S. and
its allies safe.
"OPIR is not in our face, but it's the one thing that's keeping us safe
on a day-to-day basis," Guetlein said. "It is the cornerstone of nuclear
(Information from www.losangeles.af.mil and the Air Force Association
Mitchell Institute Friday Space Group Seminar "Space Support to the
Warfighter" was used in this article)