Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg Business News reported yesterday that the first geosynchronous satellite in the nation’s next-generation missile warning constellation will be delayed yet again. This must set some sort of new land-speed record in the military space program — for slowness — since it now appears the spacecraft will enter orbit over eight years later than originally planned. But it is no laughing matter, because the last satellite in the legacy warning constellation failed a year ago, increasing the danger of gaps in coverage if successor spacecraft continue to be delayed (see my September 29 posting). Nuclear deterrence doesn’t work very well if you don’t know you’re being attacked.
The delayed satellite is part of a strategic surveillance architecture called the Space Based Infrared System conceived during the Clinton years to be far superior to the existing missile-warning network. In some ways it already is. The ground segment became operational years ago, and greatly improved the exploitation of “overhead non-imaging infrared” intelligence from legacy spacecraft. Sensors similar to those that will be used on the new geosynchronous satellites have been tested in orbit on classified host spacecraft, and judged to be very good. And to the credit of the government customer, none of the major performance goals of the program have ever been abandoned, despite years of frustration and the verdict of a Defense Science Board task force that those goals were too ambitious.
It looks like the geosynchronous bird slowly edging towards launch in late 2010 or early 2011 will have all the key features originally envisioned — including both scanning and staring sensors that, working in tandem, will considerably increase the precision of missile warning indications. The problems cited in the Bloomberg story sound more like quality-control issues than design flaws. Some of the delay may also be caused by issues at the launch pad rather than spacecraft problems. But one way or another, this system needs to be in space and functioning soon, because the legacy satellites won’t last forever and we have no “Plan B” waiting in the wings.
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