By Marina Malenic

The Air Force’s first Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) geosynchronous (GEO-1) spacecraft was encapsulated into its payload fairing last week in preparation for a planned May 6 liftoff aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., service and industry officials said yesterday.

SBIRS GEO-1 will enhance the nation’s missile warning capabilities, as well as other critical mission like technical intelligence and battlespace awareness, said Air Force program manager Col. Roger Teague. He noted that the satellite will undergo months of “rigorous testing” before being certified for the missile warning mission but is anticipated to have reached “enough fidelity for offline uses and technical intelligence purposes” within months of launch.

“Within six months, we will be able to begin providing information to the technical ingelligence community,” Teague told reporters during a conference call.

He added that users in various communities will be able to start using data at their discretion.

Teague said the Air Force is “really excited about new capabilities the nation will have as a result of this launch.” Compared to the legacy Defense Support Program (DSP), Teague said SBIRS missile detection capabilities are “very sensitive.”

“We can see much more, much sooner, and many dimmer targets,” he said.

GEO-1 arrived at Cape Canaveral on March 3 for processing and was fueled on April 8, according to the Air Force. GEO-1 and follow-on SBIRS satellites will carry two IR payloads–one scanning and one staring. Two SBIRS scanners are already hosted on classified satellites in highly elliptical orbit (HEO).

Officials say they expect GEO-1 to be declared operational within 15 months of launch. It must first undergo sensor calibration and complex IR scene tests before certification.

Teague said the Air Force plans to begin providing theater commanders with IR data even sooner.

Over the summer, military engineers and those working for prime contractor Lockheed Martin [LMT] completed system testing on GEO-1. Lockheed Martin is currently on contract to produce the SBIRS satellites and payloads, while Northrop Grumman [NOC] is Lockheed Martin’s payload integrator.

The ground segment for the system is being developed and fielded in blocks. It will consist of three major components: two fixed operational sites, several relay ground stations, and communications links. Relay ground stations around the world will receive data from the satellites and forward it to the mission control station at Buckley AFB, Colo.

If all goes according to plan, GEO-2 should launch sometime in 2012 and is projected to enter operational use roughly six months after that, according to Air Force officials.