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On Thursday, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket put a $1.2 billion early warning satellite into orbit in stunning fashion.It is the sixth and final member of the global fleet, constantly searching for threatening strategic missiles in and out of theaters Hypersonic weapons.

Rocket launching
Launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying the sixth and final Space-Based Infrared System missile warning satellite.

William Harwood/CBS News

“Threats are rapidly evolving and modernizing,” Colonel Brian Denaro, executive director of the Space Force’s Space Sensing Program, said before the launch. “Part of this evolution is a set of capabilities that are not only less predictable, but also dimmer and burn faster. Most importantly, they are harder to detect.

“It is absolutely critical that our family of integrated systems provide this high-altitude continuous IR (infrared) capability to not only detect missiles, but to track them throughout their flight and then report those events on a relevant timeline. be able to reach those targets.”

Ironically, the Space-Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (SBIRS GEO 6) satellite relies on the Atlas 5’s Russian-built RD-180 first-stage engine to propel it out of the lower atmosphere on a dramatic early morning. Climb into space.

The RD-180, along with two Northrop Grumman strapped solid-fuel boosters, was ignited by a plume of hot exhaust 17 minutes before sunrise at 6:29 a.m. ET, quickly propelling 194 feet Tall’s rocket pushes off Pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The exhaust plume turned bright orange as the rocket climbed into the rising sun, then narrowed into a striking white trail after the strap-on booster fell off, visible for dozens of miles High-altitude spectacle.

It was the first of two planned launches in Florida, just 12 and a half hours apart, as SpaceX prepares for a nighttime Falcon 9 flight from nearby Launch Pad 40 to put a South Korean science probe into lunar orbit.

spaceflight now The launches will reportedly set a new record for the most rockets to take off from Florida’s Space Coast in a year — 34 — and the shortest time between orbital flights since 1967.

Atlas 5 rocket lifts off after liftoff
As Atlas 5 climbed into the sun, its exhaust plume turned bright orange, and the rocket unloaded its two stationary solid-fuel boosters and continued its climb into space, miles away You can see a magnificent sight.

William Harwood/CBS News

The Atlas 5 flight plan calls for the SBIRS GEO 6 to be released into a highly elliptical orbit after the Centaur’s second stage Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1-1 engine fires three times in three hours. If all goes well, the satellite will be launched into a circular orbit 22,300 miles above the equator using onboard thrusters.

At that geosynchronous altitude, the satellite takes 24 hours to complete an orbit that rotates in sync with the planet below, providing a constant hemispheric view.

Built by Lockheed Martin, the SBIRS GEO 6 satellite is equipped with sensitive “gazing” and scanning sensors to monitor the planet below for heat signatures from rocket engines in flight.

The two newest members of the constellation, GEO 5 and GEO 6, launched in May 2021 with enhanced network “hardening”, better radiation resistance, more power and improved onboard propulsion.

An artist’s impression of the SBIRS satellite in orbit.

lockheed martin

Working 24/7 with other SBIRS and older Defense Support Program early warning satellites, the system provides overlapping views that allow computers to quickly detect, track and predict the direction of incoming missiles.

“It’s an integrated capability system, integrated end-to-end to provide … not just messages and alerts, but the capability to act on it,” Denaro said.

“Our integrated teams across the Department of Defense are focused on obtaining this information on the timelines they need, which are necessary for target engagement and timely response.”

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