United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket made its manner again to the pad at House Launch Complicated 41 at Cape Canaveral House Power Station on Thursday morning for a mission carrying nationwide safety mission payloads, collectively codenamed Silentbarker. The forty fifth Climate Squadron’s launch climate forecast reveals situations are 85 p.c favorable for liftoff at 8:51 a.m. EDT (1251 UTC).
Whereas the Nationwide Reconnaissance Workplace (NRO) tends to stay mum about a lot of its operations and missions, the company hosted a pre-launch press convention on Aug. 28 with its director, Dr. Christopher Scolese, showing alongside ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno and the commander of U.S. House Programs Command, Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, to speak concerning the mission and take questions from the press.
Requested why the NRO needed to be extra forthcoming with this mission, Scolese stated they felt that sharing details about the Silentbarker mission is necessary to assist higher inform the U.S. public concerning the scope of the NRO’s operations past its nationwide safety implications.
“We wish to let folks know, to some extent, what our capabilities are and that is one functionality that, if you consider it, has nice worth past simply the nationwide safety group,” Scolese stated. “The NRO helps extra than simply the nationwide safety group, the Division of Protection (DoD) and the Intelligence Neighborhood (IC). It additionally helps the civil group.”
Guetlein added that discussing a few of their capabilities can also be an necessary device that can be utilized as deterrence with respect to adversaries of america.
“An enormous a part of the House Power mission will not be solely to defend, however to discourage aggression. An enormous ingredient of deterrence is the flexibility for the adversary to know what we will and can’t see,” Guetlein stated.
“So, we really need our rivals to know that we have now eyes in GEO [geosynchronous Earth orbit] and that we will see what’s occurring in GEO. And never solely are we going to keep up the custody and skill to detect what’s happening in GEO, however we’ll have the indications and warnings to know there’s one thing out of the traditional occurring.”
Dr. Chris Scolese famous how NRO additionally assists civil mission companions throughout a joint press convention final week. pic.twitter.com/oWNe8GiEba
— NRO (@NatReconOfc) September 7, 2023
The Atlas 5 was initially supposed to launch Tuesday, Aug. 29 on the Silentbarker mission, which is also called NROL-107. Whereas the climate would’ve been excellent for launch for the launch that morning, had there been a scrub due to technical points, ULA wouldn’t have had ample time to roll the rocket again to the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) earlier than any impacts from Hurricane Idalia have been felt in Florida. Bruno stated it takes about 24 hours to off-load all of the propellants from a fully-fueled Atlas 5 rocket to roll it again to the VIF.
The NROL-107 mission is a part of what the U.S. House Power describes as a “area area consciousness structure to give attention to deterring and defending in opposition to makes an attempt to negate our crucial area capabilities,” in line with a Might 2023 budget document offered to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.
In keeping with an unclassified U.S. Air Power price range document, Silentbarker was created as a companion program between the NRO and Air Power House Command (now House Power).
This system was designed to exchange the House-Primarily based Surveillance (SBSS) Block 10 satellite, which launched on Sept. 25, 2010, from Vandenberg Air Power Base (now Vandenberg House Power Base) utilizing a Minotaur IV rocket.
Previous to partnering with the NRO, the Air Power labeled this system because the SBSS Comply with-On (SBSS FO) program.
The doc describes Silentbarker as such:
“Silentbarker will present the aptitude to look, detect, and observe objects from a space-based sensor for well timed custody and occasion detection. Surveillance from area augments and overcomes current floor sensor limitations with well timed 24-hour above-the-weather assortment of satellite tv for pc metric knowledge solely doable with a space-based sensor after which communicates its findings to the Mixed House Operations Heart (CSpOC), Nationwide House Protection Heart (NSDC), and different categorised customers. This program ingredient contains efforts associated to Silentbarker, its integration into the broader area superiority structure, and evaluation and experimentation to make sure space-based area surveillance capabilities in opposition to the evolving menace.”
Scolese stated Silentbarker might be regarded as a “watchdog” inside geosynchronous orbit, which is the area between 24,000 and 40,000 kilometers away from the Earth’s floor.
“You’ve heard about communication satellites transferring from one location to an different to supply higher protection for different areas. Definitely, we wish to have the ability to see that, so we all know what’s going on in that space,” Scolese stated. “However we additionally wish to know if there’s something happening that’s sudden or shouldn’t be happening that would doubtlessly characterize a menace to a high-value asset, both ours or one among our allies’.”
Guetlein described Silentbarker as being an necessary leap ahead in relation to know-how and observational functionality.
“At the moment, we primarily depend on our ground-based radars. Our ground-based radars are fairly beautiful, however they will just about solely see a few basketball-sized object in area. And due to the challenges of day, night time and climate, it will get extraordinarily arduous to keep up custody of these objects,” Guetlein stated.
“So, by really transferring the sensor into orbit with these objects, we will really not solely detect smaller objects, however keep custody of them. And after they function out of the norm, we get indications and warnings that there’s one thing right here.”
Guetlein additional clarified that the information collected would come into the National Space Defense Center (NSDC) and the satellite tv for pc itself could be maintained by the NRO.
He stated the “DoD will use this knowledge to keep up the area catalog and supply that area catalog free to not solely our business companions, however our worldwide companions.”
“This knowledge will enable us to have a greater outlined area catalog of the objects in geosynchronous orbit and of what the habits of these objects is,” Guetlein stated.
Silentbarker historical past and future
The mission’s growth started roughly 5 years in the past when each the NRO and the House Power determined they wanted higher perception into the territory of geostationary orbit, Scolese stated. The satellites had a roughly three-year growth interval.
“We each wanted to know what was happening in GEO and it was actually an ideal match as a result of the proprietor was actually good at constructing satellites for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and what we have been actually asking for was an ISR satellite tv for pc in GEO to not solely detect, however to keep up custody of what was occurring in GEO,” Guetlein stated.
“So, by leveraging the NRO’s mission area expertise in ISR, in addition to their acquisition authorities in partnership with House Power’s potential to have assured entry to area, it actually was an excellent partnership.”
The Silentbarker program is anticipated to include at the least two launches, in line with Scolese, “and maybe extra as satellites age out.” Whereas he wouldn’t affirm what number of payloads are on this primary mission, he stated the Sept. 9 Atlas 5 launch will embody “a number of payloads.”
After its launched, Scolese stated it is going to take between 30 to 90 days for a checkout part earlier than they will get into operations.
As for the second launch, Scolese stated that “future launches might or might not have a number of payloads.”
In keeping with a FY2021 Air Power price range document, the SBSS FO Expanded Protection mission was anticipated to have accomplished its crucial design assessment by the top of 2021 and grow to be out there for launch in 2024.
An April 2023 report from the U.S. Authorities Accountability Workplace (GAO), a non-partisan company offering data on authorities operations to Congress, acknowledged that the Silentbarker program is anticipated to achieve full operational functionality (FOC) in FY2026.
Value of defending area belongings
A FY2021 Air Power evaluation of the Silentbarker program laid out price components by means of FY2025 and estimated the entire price to be $1,189,788,000.
The GAO’s April 2023 report, entitled “House Situational Consciousness – DoD Ought to Consider The way it Can Use Industrial Knowledge,” estimated that the Silentbarker program would price $994 million.
Whereas officers through the Aug. 28, 2023, press briefing declined to enter element concerning any of the businesses who have been contracted to work on Silentbarker, some data has been shared publicly.
A listing of U.S. Division of Protection contracts dated June 15, 2021, included an Air Power contract to L3Harris Applied sciences Inc., which obtained $8,091,846.29 to work on a component of Silentbarker.
The almost $8.1 million was described as a contract modification to pay for work on the “Silentbarker Retina effort below the Fight Mission Programs Help program.”
“The contract modification is meant to mature and operationalize the mission growth processor prototype below the present program and to supply further capabilities to the operational Retina. Work will likely be carried out in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and is anticipated to be accomplished June 16, 2022,” in line with the contract award abstract.
Launch of the Silentbarker mission was awarded to United Launch Providers, LLC., a subsidiary of ULA, as a part of a three-launch service contract below the Section 1A Developed Expendable Launch Car (EELV) procurement technique.
The EELV was renamed the “Nationwide Safety House Launch” program in March 2019.
The contract announcement didn’t parse out the worth of every launch, however did put the collective worth of the Silentbarker mission together with the beforehand launched SBIRS GEO-5 and SBIRS GEO-6 missions at about $441.76 million.
Silentbarker was initially introduced with a goal launch date throughout FY2022.
Closing of a chapter
As ULA prepares to retire the Atlas 5 rocket, the Silentbarker mission will mark one among 19 remaining flights of that automobile.
Whereas the corporate nonetheless has another nationwide safety mission utilizing the Atlas 5, USSF-51, which is concentrating on launch someday in 2024, the Sept. 9 launch would be the ultimate Atlas 5 supporting a mission for the NRO.
As soon as full, the Atlas 5 may have flown 18 NRO missions. Bruno described the second as “bittersweet,” however stated capping off this journey with the Atlas 5 551 configuration is thrilling.
“It’s our mission that we’re designed for, so it’s sort of a becoming solution to finish that,” Bruno stated. “It means lots to our guys. You’re going to see folks with somewhat tear within the nook of their eye.”
The 551 designation denotes using 5 stable rocket boosters, that are strapped to the Atlas first stage. This rocket will even use ULA’s largest payload fairing, which is their Lengthy 5-meter diameter set. This configuration is nicknamed “Bruiser” for public relations functions by ULA.
In its historical past, ULA has launched 97 nationwide safety missions, of which, 33 have been for the NRO, utilizing numerous launch automobiles.
Bruno says that is an thrilling sendoff as the corporate prepares to retire each the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Heavy rockets and transition to solely the forthcoming Vulcan rocket.
“Personally, this mission means lots to me, because it does to everybody in your groups, I’m positive,” Bruno stated, referring to Scolese and Guetlein. “There are people on the market working very arduous each day to make Earth orbit a tough neighborhood and this and that is going to do lots to maintain the protected, excessive floor the peaceable excessive floor that it was meant to be.”