By Marina Malenic

The Air Force successfully launched the first Space Based Space Surveillance spacecraft last week from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., the service said.

SBSS is designed to detect, collect, identify and track man-made space objects from deep space to low-earth orbit. It uses a two-axis gimbal that points the visible sensor, and its on-board mission data processor performs image processing to extract moving targets and reference star pixels to reduce the downlink data size, according to the Air Force. It is expected to give the Air Force its first full-time, space-based surveillance of satellites and debris in Earth orbit, a job currently done by ground-based systems.

“The team will now work to initialize the spacecraft and complete a comprehensive testing period before transitioning to full-time operations early next year,” Col. J.R. Jordan, SBSS mission director, said following the Sept. 25 launch.

The satellite is to be handed over to Air Force Space Command’s 1st Space Operations Squadron approximately 210 days following the launch.

Prime contractor Boeing [BA] acquired initial on-orbit signals from the satellite shortly after its launch, the company said in a statement. The satellite began an automated sequence that deployed solar arrays, pointed them at the sun, and initialized satellite operations. The signals indicate that the satellite is “functioning normally” and is “ready to begin orbital maneuvers and operational testing,” according to Boeing.

Company executives said the satellite and its ground system are expected to improve the accuracy and timeliness of U.S. space tracking and monitoring capabilities.

“The United States depends on space assets for security, communications, weather forecasting, and many other essential services,” said Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager, Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems. “America’s adversaries recognize this increasing dependence, which makes the need for enhanced space situational awareness more and more vital.”

During the two weeks following launch, operators will perform health checks on the satellite bus, followed by payload checkout, according to the Air Force. Tests include sending simulated space situational awareness tasks to the SBSS Satellite Operations Center, which will send commands to the satellite and collect data from those tasks for the Air Force Joint Space Operations Center.

Boeing is responsible for overall program management; systems engineering and integration; design and development of the SBSS Satellite Operations Center at Schriever AFB, Colo.; and system operations and maintenance. Subcontractor Ball Aerospace [BLL] developed, designed, manufactured, integrated and tested the satellite.

The Air Force this summer implemented corrective actions associated with a Minotaur IV rocket software problem that delayed the launch to Sept. 25 from July 8. Minotaur manufacturer Orbital [ORB] discovered an anomaly in May during preliminary testing for the Space Test Program S-26 mission, which would follow SBSS. The Air Force investigation that followed pointed to a problem with the common launch vehicle software. An assessment of impacts to the SBSS test launch was then conducted. As the software effort came to a close, investigators identified “a potential mission risk” associated with certain connectors used on flight avionics components aboard the Minotaur IV launch vehicle.