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News | Aug. 11, 2022

SBIRS GEO-6 Launch Closes Out Two Decades of Progress in Missile Warning, Tracking and Detection; Next-Gen OPIR to Take the Helm

By Lisa Sodders

When the last of Space Systems Command’s (SSC) Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites was launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Aug. 4, Lauro “Larry” Dungca and his wife were there, watching his first – and last - SBIRS launch.

Dungca, SBIRS Crypto Lead for Space Systems Command, has served for more than 50 years as a federal civil servant, and has been associated with the missile warning, missile tracking and missile defense program since 1988 – when it was known as the Defense Support Program (DSP).

“I’m super excited,” said Dungca, a native of the Republic of the Philippines, shared prior to the launch. “I cannot express it! I feel that I have done my duty, I have done my share for democracy.”

The launch was a memorable moment for many people at Space Systems Command and its mission partners, many of whom, like Dungca, have given decades of their careers to ensuring the success of the program.

Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) is an integrated system that supports several missions: missile early warning, missile defense, battlespace awareness and technical intelligence. Counting SBIRS GEO-6, a total of 12 satellites carrying SBIRS or Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) payloads have been launched. The first SBIRS HEO payload was delivered to the Host in 2004, and the first SBIRS GEO was launched in May 2011.

SBIRS development began in the mid-1990 to replace the DSP constellation, which was then the backbone of the U.S. ballistic missile warning system. The first DSP satellite was launched in 1970; the last of this 23-satellite constellation was launched in 2007.

Originally, the program was divided into two parts: SBIRS HIGH, focused on the detection and tracking of missiles during the earlier phase of their flight, while their motors were generating heat and infrared signatures in short wave lengths; and SBIRS LOW, focused on tracking and reporting other about missiles during the middle portions of their flight, when their infrared signatures were at longer wave lengths. SBIRS LOW was transferred to the Missile Defense Agency in 2001, where it was renamed the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS.)

The SBIRS program acquired six Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) Satellites and four Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) payloads carried on host satellites, to track the Polar Regions.

“I’m very proud that we got this program going, and the capability it provides not only to the warfighter but also for civilians,” said Christopher J. Palermo, Chief, SBIRS/NGG OL Sunnyvale/Waterton. “I was a little sad to see the last space vehicle leave the factory here – the last of its kind – but we have the Next Gen OPIR as a follow-on program."

Palermo has spent 20 years supporting the SBIRS program, both in the public and private sectors. From 2001 to 2004, he led SBIRS Requirements Section, a 20-member integrated team, serving as a member of the U.S. Air Force for SSC’s predecessor.
From October 2005 to October 2007, working in the private sector, Palermo spearheaded efforts to enhance the SBIRS Integrated Master Schedule and also provided assessments on problem areas to the SBIRS system engineering division.

For the past 15 years as a federal government employee, Palermo has supervised a 10-person team at Sunnyvale, California, and Waterton, Colorado, assisting SBIRS and Next-Generation GEO (NGG) Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) spacecraft component development, GEO space vehicle integration and testing, and quality assurance. 

It’s no small thing to build 10,000 pound satellites the size of a metro bus, launch them into space and expect them to perform under the harsh conditions of space for a decade or more, but the SBIRS program has been on time and on budget over the past 10 years, and will continue to provide resiliency to the U.S. missile warning space architecture constellation even as the next generation is developed and deployed, Palermo said.

“Improvements have been added with each new launch, including a completely redesigned spacecraft bus for SBIRS GEO-5 and 6, and a unique pointing-and-control assembly for the mirrors that make the system so much more accurate and more timely than anything competitors have,” Palermo said.

The Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next Gen OPIR) system -- the next generation constellation of missile warning and tracking satellites, which will begin launching in 2025 -- will consist of three geosynchronous satellites built by Lockheed Martin and two polar orbiting missile warning systems built by Northrop Grumman.

In addition to the five new satellites, SSC also will be building the Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution (FORGE) system, a modular, open-architecture mission-data processing framework, which will be capable of processing data from SBIRS as well as Next Gen OPIR to provide extra resiliency to the missile warning space architecture.

Norma Washington, executive assistant to SSC’s PEO for Space Sensing, has more than 40 years of government service and has been associated with the SBIRS program from the beginning.
She’s watched military members arrive on base as young lieutenants, leave the program and later come back as colonels and generals. Over the years, she has developed encyclopedic knowledge of the program needed to keep up with the changes. She understands the key players among the hundreds of military, government civilians and contractors involved, and makes sure the right people attend the right meetings.
“I’ve been trained by the best and I’ve been mentored by the best,” Washington said. “I’ve taken what they told me then, and I still apply it today, and I remember the lessons learned. It’s a blessing that I’ve been here this long and all of the people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.”
“I’ve looked forward to coming to work – every day is still a new challenge and a new experience,” Washington said.

“As far as the taxpayer goes, the government has your back and we are the eyes in the sky, helping the warfighter and protecting our nation and the world,” Washington said.

Brian Louie, integration and launch manager for SBIRS GEO, WFOV, OPIR Next GEN at SSC’s Space Sensing Directorate, said it was “kind of bittersweet as the last SBIRS was prepared to launch, but knowing that there is a follow-on program to take over for SBIRS is a good thing.”
“SBIRS has advanced the amount of data available to both the warfighter and our allies and has already saved countless lives from real world missile attacks,” Louie said.
“The SBIRS program provides -- not only our nation but our allies -- real-time assessment of missile attacks around the world in order to provide information which helps to identify and or provide a defense to counteract the missile,” Louie said.
“When we first started the SBIRS program, and during the long SBIRS development, the Defense Support Program (DSP) was the workhorse, the legacy system that was the backbone for providing critical early Missile Warning information to the nation,” said Michael M. Jacobs, Principal Engineer, Space Systems Architecture Division at The Aerospace Corporation.
“Now after all these years, SBIRS is the legacy program,” said Jacobs, whose main role was conducting system engineering and analysis throughout all phases of the SBIRS program. Prior to SBIRS, Jacobs was part of a multi-agency team that conducted analysis of alternatives in 1994 that helped develop the multi-mission SBIRS program.
“It is very satisfying to have been with the program from even before the beginning, to have helped to create and develop and deploy the system, and to see the tremendous capability SBIRS is providing today,” Jacobs said. “SBIRS has advanced our abilities to detect dimmer, shorter-duration, ballistic missiles and other targets and events, and to do so in multiple spectral bands.”
“Although this was the last SBIRS satellite to be launched, I know that the capability it is delivering will be with us many years into the future, supporting missile warning and the other missions, and the data will also be exploited in creative ways to expand to other mission areas.” Jacobs said. “Indeed, changes have already been made in the ground system to process the SBIRS data in different ways to detect, track, and report many of the expanding and evolving adversary targets that are beyond the SBIRS mission requirements.”
Barbara J. Tressel, chief engineer for Missile Warning/Missile Tracking Capability Integration for the Aerospace Corporation, said she felt “a range of emotions” as the launch date neared.
“It’s a bittersweet moment for someone who has dedicated more than half her life to this mission and program,” said Tressel, who has worked on the SBIRS program since 1996 in the areas of mission performance and system test, and, most recently, working on the Next Gen and FORGE systems.
“I am sad that we have come to the end of an era on what I believe has been an incredibly successful program, but I am still in awe and very proud of what we have been able to achieve as a team.”

“These vehicles and their payloads pushed the state of the art in the late 90s/early 2000s, certainly by providing agile, taskable sensors,” Tressel said. “They have great reliability and longevity, enabling us to spend the time needed to properly develop and deploy the next generation of satellites that will continue to serve the nation.”
“The ground system that operates them has evolved over time to be much more capable, taking advantage of advancements in computing power and architecture to be able to more quickly and thoroughly exploit the full breadth of data coming off the satellites,” Tressel added. “This is a tribute to the government and contractor teams working on SBIRS, and their dedication to the mission above all else.”