Science and Technology News

Friday, October 2, 2015

Space-based missile warning continues expansion

by Senior Airman Phillip Houk and Mr. Christopher McCune
460th Space Wing Public Affairs, 460th Space Wing Historian

10/2/2015 - BUCKLEY AIR FORE BASE, Colo.  -- Our Air Force's space-based missile warning program has a robust history stemming from the 1960s through the present.  As these programs have evolved over the decades, their continued presence demonstrates their necessity to ensuring our national defense.

The United States' first true operational satellite defense program was known as the Missile Defense Alarm System. Initiated in 1958, MIDAS began with the first of nine launch attempts of infrared missile warning satellites in February 1960, but only achieved mission success on two of them--MIDAS 7 on May 9, 1963 and MIDAS 9 on July 18 of the same year. These satellites attained orbit cycles of 44 days and 11 days, respectively, and gathered enough data during their brief operational life to convince top officials of the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense to pursue a follow-on program for enhanced infrared satellite missile detection.  The requirements for this program led to the creation of the Defense Support Program in the late 1960s and progressed in the ensuing decades into the Space-Based Infrared System.

The first launch of a DSP spacecraft took place on Nov. 6, 1970, onboard a Titan IIIC rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Since the inaugural DSP launch, subsequent satellite launches secured the DSP program as the primary space-based ballistic missile early warning system for the United States and its allies abroad.  As America's primary space sentinel for 45 years, DSP continues to provide early warning to command authorities of intercontinental ballistic missile launches from around the world that could threaten the United States and its foreign mission partners.  Since its initiation as a Cold War program, the DSP system has expanded, evolved and taken on new capabilities, including early warning alerts of short-range theater ballistic missile launches in high-interest areas.

Between 1970 and 1985, six DSP ground stations were instituted across the globe to receive data from satellites within their field of view, including at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado.  Following the creation of the SBIRS program on Aug. 15, 1996 a Mission Control Station was established at Buckley AFB and became operational in December 2001.  This station consolidated all telemetry, tracking, command, and mission processing operations for the DSP constellation while providing an infrastructural asset for the eventual operation of SBIRS.  In the years that followed, the MCS has continued to evolve, integrate SBIRS space assets, and synergize with mission partners across the globe. Through these improvements, the MCS has enhanced its capability to detect, process and provide warning to combatant commanders, deployed warfighters, our nation and its allies from foreign missile threats.

As the SBIRS program continues to advance, new mission opportunities are underway, including support civil agencies, in order to enhance their respective missions such as U.S. Forest Services with early forest fire detection.

The next advancement in space-based missile warning will be complete with the SBIRS Block 10 upgrade. This effort will consolidate all SBIRS operations, including DSP and SBIRS geosynchronous satellites and highly elliptical orbit sensor constellations, into one facility.  The Block 10 program encompasses upgrades at multiple SBIRS sites and consists of major software revisions, additional computer processing hardware at the MCS, and numerous additional hardware components at each relay ground station to include fully leveraging new SBIRS scanner and starer sensor capabilities. Block 10 is scheduled to achieve operations acceptance by August 2016. The evolution of the SBIRS program also continues with the anticipated launch of GEO-4 in 2016 and GEO-3 in late 2017, as well as development of the GEO-5/GEO-6 satellites and HEO-3/HEO-4 sensors.

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