A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO Flight 3 satellite lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 January 20 at 7:42 p.m. ET. SBIRS GEO Flight 3 is considered one of the nation’s highest priority space programs.

An Atlas V rocket lifts off carrying the Air Force's third Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite
An Atlas V rocket lifts off carrying the Air Force’s third Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite

«ULA is proud to deliver this critical satellite which will improve surveillance capabilities for our national decision makers», said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Government Satellite Launch. «I can’t think of a better way to kick off the new year».

This mission was launched aboard an Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) 401 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter diameter Large Payload Fairing (LPF). The Atlas V booster propulsion for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C engine.

«The Atlas V 401 configuration has become the workhorse of the Atlas V fleet, delivering half of all Atlas V missions to date», said Maginnis. «ULA understands that even with the most reliable launch vehicles, our sustained mission success is only made possible with seamless integration between our customer and our world class ULA team».

The Space Based Infrared System is designed to provide global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities to meet 21st century demands in four national security mission areas: missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness.

This is ULA’s first launch of 11 planned launches in 2017 and the 116th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006. ULA’s next East Coast launch is the Delta IV WGS-9 satellite for the U.S. Air Force. The launch is scheduled for March 8 from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

With more than a century of combined heritage, United Launch Alliance is the nation’s most experienced and reliable launch service provider. ULA has successfully delivered more than 115 satellites to orbit that aid meteorologists in tracking severe weather, unlock the mysteries of our solar system provide critical capabilities for troops in the field, and enable personal device-based GPS navigation and unlock the mysteries of our solar system.

Atlas V SBIRS GEO Flight 3 Launch Highlights


Space Based Infrared System

Missile Warning:

Reliable, unambiguous, timely and accurate warning for theater and strategic missile launches.

Missile Defense:

Delivery of critical information supporting the effective operation of missile defense systems.

Technical Intelligence:

Ability to characterize infrared (IR) event signatures, phenomenology and threat performance data.

Battlespace Awareness:

Delivery of comprehensive IR data to help characterize battlespace conditions.

An Atlas V rocket stands ready to launch the Air Force's third SBIRS satellite
An Atlas V rocket stands ready to launch the Air Force’s third SBIRS satellite


Atlas V 401

Payload Fairing (PLF):

The SBIRS satellite is encapsulated in the 14-foot/4-meter diameter large payload fairing (LPF). The LPF is a bisector (two-piece shell) fairing consisting of aluminum skin/stringer construction with vertical split-line longerons. The vehicle’s height with the LPF is approximately 194 feet/59 meters.


The Centaur second stage is 10 feet/3 m in diameter and 41.5 feet/12.65 m long. Its propellant tanks are constructed of pressure-stabilized, corrosion resistant stainless steel. Centaur is a liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen-(cryogenic-) fueled vehicle. It uses a single RL10C-1 engine producing 22,900 lbs/10,387 kg of thrust. The cryogenic tanks are insulated with a combination of helium-purged insulation blankets, radiation shields, and Spray-On Foam Insulation (SOFI). The Centaur Forward Adapter (CFA) provides the structural mountings for the fault-tolerant avionics system and the structural and electronic interfaces with the spacecraft.


The Atlas V booster is 12.5 feet/3.8 m in diameter and 106.5 feet/32.46 m long. The booster’s tanks are structurally stable and constructed of isogrid aluminum barrels, spun-formed aluminum domes and intertank skirts. Atlas booster propulsion is provided by the RD-180 engine system (a single engine with two thrust chambers). The RD-180 burns RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or highly purified kerosene) and liquid oxygen, and delivers 860,200 lbs/390,180 kg of thrust at sea level. The Atlas V booster is controlled by the Centaur avionics system which provides guidance, flight control and vehicle sequencing functions during the booster and Centaur phases of flight.

The third Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite, encapsulated inside a 4-meter payload fairing, is mated to an Atlas V rocket inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex-41
The third Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite, encapsulated inside a 4-meter payload fairing, is mated to an Atlas V rocket inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex-41