The U.S. Air Force’s fourth Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite transmitted its first images back to Earth. The milestone, known as «first light», occurred in February when the SBIRS GEO Flight-4 satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, turned on its powerful sensors for the first time during space vehicle checkout.
SBIRS GEO Flight-4 is the latest satellite to join the Air Force’s orbiting missile warning constellation. Equipped with powerful scanning and staring infrared surveillance sensors, the satellite collects data for use by the U.S. military to detect missile launches, support ballistic missile defense, expand technical intelligence gathering and bolster situational awareness on the battlefield.
Launched on January 19, SBIRS GEO Flight-4 began responding to the Air Force’s 460th Space Wing’s commands just 37 minutes after liftoff. Using its liquid apogee engine, the satellite successfully propelled itself to a Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) altitude of about 22,000 miles/35,406 km. There, it deployed its solar arrays and antennas, and began initial check out.
«First light was a tremendous milestone for SBIRS GEO Flight-4 and we are very pleased with the high quality and definition of the images we received back», said Tom McCormick, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) systems mission area. «With the launch of this satellite, SBIRS can now provide global coverage, with better-than-specified sensor pointing accuracy and the ability to detect even more targets than anticipated».
SBIRS GEO Flight-4 completes the baseline SBIRS constellation. It joins SBIRS GEO Flights-1, 2 and 3, which were launched in 2011, 2013 and 2017 respectively.
In 2014, the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.86 billion contract for the SBIRS GEO-5 and 6 spacecrafts. Following that award, the company offered the government a no-cost contract modification, transitioning to its modernized LM 2100 satellite bus, to demonstrate how production cycle times and costs could be drastically reduced on future space vehicles. The modification also provides improved resiliency and validates how modernized sensor suites could be incorporated.
SBIRS GEO-5 and GEO-6 are currently greater than 50 percent through production and on track for delivery to the Air Force very early in the next decade.