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SBIRS GEO-6: Another IR Eye in the Sky

The hand painted artwork of the SBIRS GEO-6 mission insignia adorning the payload fairing atop the Atlas V 421.
Credit: David Diebold

On Thursday August 4th at 6:29am EDT, United Launch Alliance will launch the SBIRS GEO-6 mission for the United States Space Force. The Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites are designed to provide battlespace awareness and missile early warning defense as well as critical information in technical intelligence mission areas. This will be the sixth and final in the line of the SBIRS GEO satellites.

A rendering of a SBIRS GEO satellite.
Credit: United States Air Force

The SBIRS program has five GEO satellites deployed to date, with GEO-5 launched in May of 2021. This group, as denoted by GEO, is situated in geosynchronous orbit while another group, HEO, is situated in highly elliptical orbits. In total since January 2018, eight SBIRS satellites have been launched. Plans and funding for a GEO-7 and GEO-8 were eliminated in 2019 in favor of a new program, the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program (Next Gen OPIR).

GEO-6 will provide added capability and bolster system capacity alongside its five predecessors. “It just gives us more capability, the more sensor coverage you have on the Earth the more IR signatures you can detect. The more missiles you can process, so effectively it just gives us more capability all over the earth.” said Flt. Lt. Jason Reuben during an interview in April 2021, regarding the SBIRS GEO-5 launch. “These satellites have huge fields of view, especially in geosynchronous orbit which is about 36,000 kilometers away from the Earth.”

A diagram of the SBIRS architecture explaining how each part of the system communicate with each other.
Credit: United States Air Force

SBIRS GEO-6, much like its twin GEO-5, were both built on a Lockheed Martin designed satellite bus system, the LM 2100 platform, while the sensors onboard were designed by Northrop Grumman. Weighing over 5,000 lbs. each, both GEO satellites include two deployable solar arrays for power generation, in addition to  the scanners and sensors that provide critical information and intelligence to their ground-based operators. 

While both satellites are built to withstand the harsh environments experienced on geosynchronous orbit, and these have a general life expectancy of around 12 years. “The space environment is notoriously unforgiving on hardware,” said Maj. Matthew Garcia, adding “although we won’t turn down extra mission life if we get it.” Heavily tested prior to construction, the components used for GEO-5 and 6 were designed with the necessary shielding to protect the satellites during their lifespan, to ensure constant operation and functionality.

While being the final SBIRS satellite to launch, the occasion will also mark the final flight of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V in its 421 configuration, the final flight of a 400 series Atlas from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, and the second to last 400 series overall. The final 400 series Atlas V, a 401, will carry  JPSS-2 and is scheduled for a November launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. As of the posting of this article (8/3/22), the launch weather forecast predicts a 70% chance of acceptable weather conditions for launch. Live streaming of the launch will be available via ULA’s Youtube Channel.

Edited by Andrea Lloyd.

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