A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launched two U.S. Air Force satellites into orbit Saturday (April 14), setting the stage for improved military satellite communications and a new generation of space vehicle design.
The Atlas V rocket lifted off at 7:13 p.m. EDT (2313 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The U.S. Air Force Space Command mission, AFSPC-11, features a geostationary communications satellite called the Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM (CBAS) and the experimental ESPA Augmented GEO Laboratory Experiment (EAGLE) demonstrator.
The EAGLE spacecraft is carrying several payloads, including a smaller satellite called Mycroft that is designed to test self-inspection technology for satellites, Air Force officials said.
Shortly after liftoff, ULA shut down its live video feed from the Atlas V at the request of the U.S. Air Force, a routine procedure for military launches.
About five and a half hours after liftoff, the two satellites will begin to separate from their carrier rocket, according to a ULA mission description.
Then, both satellites will be carried into a geosynchronous orbit 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth, where they can keep watch over the same region of the planet.
“The mission of CBAS is to augment existing military satellite communications capabilities and broadcast military data continuously through space-based, satellite communications relay links,” according to the ULA statement.
The Atlas 5’s RD-180 main engine and five solid rocket boosters propel the rocket off the launch pad Saturday. Credit: United Launch Alliance
The Air Force kept the identity of the main payload on the launch secret until April 6, when officials revealed the CBAS satellite’s communications relay function.
“CBAS is a military satellite communications spacecraft destined for geosynchronous orbit to provide communications relay capabilities to support senior leaders and combatant commanders,” the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center said in a statement. “CBAS will augment existing military satellite communications capabilities and broadcast military data continuously through space-based, satellite communications relay links.”
An Air Force spokesperson declined to identify the contractor that built the CBAS satellite, and the military released no further details on the mission.
The lower passenger is the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) Augmented Geosynchronous Laboratory Experiment satellite. The Air Force calls the nested acronym EAGLE for short.
Orbital ATK developed the EAGLE spacecraft by modifying a ring-like structure often used to connect small satellites to their launchers, adding solar panels, computers, rocket thrusters and instrumentation to the adapter. The Air Force says EAGLE will a pathfinder for future missions, demonstrating a maneuverable satellite design that could help the military launch new capabilities at less cost.
Managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s space vehicles directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, the EAGLE mission “hosts experiments designed to detect, identify, and attribute threatening behavior as well as enhance space situational awareness,” the Air Force said in a statement.
One of the experiments is a separating daughter satellite named Mycroft, apparently named for the older brother of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. In one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, Sherlock Holmes says Mycroft possesses observational and deductive abilities greater than his own.
The Air Force describes Mycroft as a “fourth-generation space situational awareness experiment.” The service said the satellite will test technology that could be used by future missions to survey, catalog and inspect objects in geostationary orbit.
The Mycroft satellite, also built by Orbital ATK, “will explore ways to enhance space object characterization and navigation capabilities, it will investigate control mechansms used for flight safety, and it will explore the designs and data processing methods for enhancing space situational awareness,” the Air Force wrote in a fact sheet on the mission.
Mycroft is a follow-up to the Air Force’s ANGELS satellite, which launched into an orbit just above the geostationary belt in 2014 and ended its mission in November. ANGELS inspected the upper stage of its Delta 4 rocket soon after launch, then tested in-orbit surveillance, navigation and rendezvous operations for the rest of its mission.
According to the Air Force fact sheet, Mycroft will fly to a distance of around 21 miles (35 kilometers) from EAGLE, then re-approach the mother satellite to a range of about a kilometer, or 3,300 feet.
Mycroft will evaluate the region around the EAGLE satellite with an on-board camera, the Air Force said, and use its sensors and software to perform advanced guidance, navigation and control functions.
“The space domain is crucial today and will only increase in value moving into the future,” said Maj. Gen. William Cooley, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory.
“If the Air Force is to truly embrace space superiority then improving our ability to protect and defend vital space interests is of paramount importance.”
The Air Force said engineers have completed “rigorous research and development” to ensure Mycroft can safely fly through the congested geostationary orbit region.
Mycroft weighs a few hundred pounds, and its main body is no bigger than a mini-refrigerator, with a deployable solar panel out the side.
The Air Force owns four operational satellite sleuths in Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program.
The GSSAP satellites flying around the same region as Mycroft and ANGELS more than 22,000 miles over the equator, feeding data on numerous foreign and commercial spacecraft movements positions to military officials.
The EAGLE satellite is scheduled to operate at least one year, and the Mycroft mission is expected to last 12 to 18 months, the Air Force said.
“Other experiments hosted on the EAGLE will detect, identify and analyze system threats such as man-made disturbances, space weather events or collisions with small meteorites,” the Air Force wrote in a fact sheet released Friday.
“Together, EAGLE and Mycroft help train operators and development of tactics, techniques and procedures during exercises or experiments to improve space warfighting.”
The Air Force will also use the EAGLE mission as a training tool for engineers and satellite controllers.
Another experiment on EAGLE will evaluate the performance of a “hypertemporal” imager that combines data in infrared, ultraviolet and visible light, a capability the Air Force says will allow analysts to extract more information from image scenes.
Two more separable payloads are also abroad the EAGLE satellite, according to information provided during ULA’s launch webcast. No details about their missions were released.
The next Atlas 5 mission is set for May 5 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, with NASA’s InSight lander heading for Mars.
Another launch from Cape Canaveral is scheduled for Monday evening, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will loft NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey satellite, an orbiting observatory that will search for planets around other stars.
— Air Force Research Lab – AFRL (@AFResearchLab) April 13, 2018
Mycroft is expected to remain in orbit for up to 18 months.
The satellite and its EAGLE mothership “will be disposed of in a safe orbit” at the end of their mission, according to AFRL officials.