After Hosted Payload Success, US Air Force Plans Follow-on
A technician readies the U.S. Air Force’s Commercial Hosted Infrared Payload sensor that will fly aboard the SES-2 satellite. Credit: Orbital Sciences’ photo
— Hoping to build on the success of its pioneering project that saw an
experimental missile warning sensor launched last year aboard a commercial
telecommunications satellite, the U.S. Air Force is requesting funding in 2013
for a follow-on mission, according to a service official.
“We are right now in the midst of planning a follow-on to
CHIRP,” said Doug Loverro, executive director of Air Force Space and Missile Systems
Center in Los Angeles. “Obviously, there are still many
budget wickets to jump through in order to go ahead and make sure that is
agreed to throughout the government process. … Some initial work has already
been started by our program office and some initial interactions with the
CHIRP, or Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, was launched
Sept. 21 aboard the SES-2 communications satellite operated by Luxembourg-based
SES. The satellite was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles,
Va., while the sensor was supplied by SAIC of McLean, Va.
The Air Force-owned sensor is performing well on orbit and
has observed multiple launches to date, Loverro said during a recent two-part
CHIRP panel discussion moderated by Space News and sponsored by SES Government
Solutions of McLean.
Loverro said funding for the follow-on mission is included
in the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Space Modernization
Initiative account, but could not provide a specific number. SBIRS is the Air
Force’s primary missile warning system, the first dedicated satellite for which
was launched last May and is still undergoing testing, with formal operational
certification expected this year.
The Air Force’s $83.2 million request for SBIRS
modernization next year includes $12.6 million for hosted payloads and $7.4
million for a wide-field-of-view sensor testbed, according to budget
justification documents released in February. CHIRP is a wide-field-of-view
staring sensor designed to detect and track the heat signature of missiles as
they lift off.
Loverro said the CHIRP follow-on mission, if approved, would
be an “operational demo” of a sensor specifically designed to operate in space.
The CHIRP payload now on orbit was conceived several years ago as a
ground-based testbed for a possible early replacement for SBIRS, a program that
at the time was struggling mightily with cost overruns and delays.
Funding for the so-called Alternate Infrared Satellite
System dried up after SBIRS prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems
convinced Air Force officials that it had gotten the notoriously troubled
program back on track. But the Air Force continued to fund work on the SAIC
sensor, opting to use it as a pathfinder for hosting government payloads aboard
Thomas Taverney, senior vice president SAIC, said the
specifics of the CHIRP follow-on mission are not entirely clear at this point.
“They have previously discussed what they call a CHIRP Replenishment, or
CHIRP+, which would potentially take the current design from a technical demo
to an operational demo,” Taverney said in a follow-up to the panel discussion.
“They talked about sensors that cost less than $40 million and that could be
built in less than 36 months.”
While the current CHIRP experiment is focused on the
strategic missile warning mission, the follow-on might entail the “full
spectrum” of overhead persistent infrared sensor applications, including
“monitoring static targets, characterizing transient events and assisting with
environmental monitoring,” Taverney said.
Air Force and industry officials have raised the possibility
of using infrared sensors aboard commercial satellites to take on the tactical
missile warning mission. The hosted payload approach is not feasible for
strategic missile warning because commercial satellites are not hardened to
withstand the effects of a nuclear blast, according to Loverro.
“It is logical to disaggregate the strategic warning mission
from the tactical missile warning, battlespace awareness and theater
intelligence missions,” Taverney said. These missions, he added, lend themselves
to a wide-field-of-view staring sensor that maintains constant surveillance of
large areas yet can pick up relatively dim infrared signatures.
During the panel discussion, Taverney said CHIRP weighs a
lot less than comparable sensors because there are not a lot of moving parts,
outside of a focus wheel and filter wheel. Analysts can also add and subtract
frames for low-light events, which provides a lot of flexibility, he said.
“I think we can say at this point that we have kind of
proven all of the great features we thought that a staring system would have,”
Taverney said during the panel discussion. “It has all of those features. The
data looks very good.”
Space News Editor
Warren Ferster contributed to this story.
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