An early-warning missile detection satellite that was launched into the wrong orbit nine years ago was decommissioned, Northrop Grumman [NOC] said recently.

The Air Force Flight 19 satellite was launched April 9, 1999, on a Titan IV launch vehicle with an Inertial Upper stage (IUS) rocket.

Six hours later, the two stages of the IUS failed to separate completely, leaving the satellite out of control and in a useless geo-transfer orbit (at approximately 320 kilometers and a high apogee altitude at about 34,000 kilometers).

Flight 19 was declared a “failed launch,” and the satellite never achieved operational status. It was unable to perform its early warning missile detection mission because of its orbit.

However, the satellite was put to use for mission-related and scientific purposes, and provided that function for nine years.

“An anomaly placed DSP-19 in a non-operational orbit, and the Air Force and Northrop Grumman team used it as a test and checkout satellite to collect vital data to better manage the operational DSP fleet and improve future space systems performance,” said Lt. Col. Joe Coniglio, DSP program manager in the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

“Flight 19 had a three-year design life, a five-year design goal, and lived nine years traveling in a much more hostile radiation environment than it was designed to withstand,” said Fred Ricker, vice president of the Military Systems division for the Northrop Grumman Space Technology sector.

During its nine years in orbit, Flight 19 served as a test bed to check out command and control procedures. It also helped operators enhance the existing DSP constellation performance by characterizing battery, solar array and attitude control performance, thermal effects and command and control capability. And the satellite traveled through the Van Allen radiation belts twice a day, providing data on the longevity of systems exposed to intense radiation. As well, it viewed the Earth and its environment from different angles, providing information that could not be obtained by a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. Finally, Flight 19 functioned as a test bed during the development of command systems at Northrop Grumman Telemetry and Orbital Test Station (TOTS), enabling TOTS to become a fully functional, Air Force-accredited operations control center.

The first DSP built by Northrop Grumman for the Air Force was launched in November 1970; the last DSP was launched last November. DSP spacecraft have demonstrated remarkable reliability.