Ocean Recons Readied – NRO readies sea surveillance flight, optical satellite procurement

By Craig Covault
April 29, 2007
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Ocean Recons Readied – NRO readies sea surveillance flight, optical satellite procurement

The following story appears in Aviation Week and Space Technology and online at aviationnow.com.

Image: Arabian Sea imaged during sandstorm by SeaWifs satellite will be key area of interest for new NRO mission.

Secret National Reconnaissance Office dual satellite ocean surveillance mission to track potential terrorist movements at sea and Chinese and Iranian ship tactics is being readied for liftoff June 14 here on an Atlas V, say intelligence sources.

The National Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS) flight is designated NRO L-30. “We’re on track for a mid-June launch of the Atlas V,” says Lt. Col. Kent Nickle, director of operations for the 5th Space Launch Sqdn. of the 45th Space Wing here. He did not address the secret ocean surveillance payloads, however.

The importance of NRO’s space ocean surveillance role in connection with the Navy and Coast Guard has been elevated since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The need to track thousands of civilian ships worldwide has intensified, given the potential for seemingly harmless shipping to be involved in nuclear, chemical or biological terrorist operations.

And nations like China and Iran are also demonstrating new sea-based tactics and capabilities that must be monitored.

The two satellites on the Atlas V mission have a combined mass of about 6.5 tons and will use primarily electronic intelligence (elint) techniques combined with interferometry. The technique involves comparing the differences in the elint data from each spacecraft to derive a ship’s position and direction of travel data. The spacecraft and launcher have a combined total cost of roughly $600-800 million.

The satellites will fly in a formation that is precisely controlled to obtain data at different times as they overfly specific ships as they move or remain stationary between the satellites’ passes

Those data will then be combined with information from about 18 other NRO ocean surveillance satellites spaced in six-to-seven separate formations orbiting the globe.

At the same time that the NRO is readying the ocean surveillance mission, the agency is also initiating a several hundred million-dollar procurement for a new stopgap optical imaging system.

The new system is aimed at enabling the intelligence community to recover from delays in the Future Imagining Architecture (FIA) program, which has yet to launch an op-erational satellite.

The delays occurred because of poor Boeing performance in the optical program that has now been given to Lockheed Martin. Boeing has retained the imaging-radar half of the program (AW&ST Sept. 5, 2005, p. 23).

The new spacecraft are especially needed to obtain imaging intelligence of China, Iran and North Korea as older imaging reconnaissance satellites expire. The competitors will likely be be DigitalGlobe and GeoEye.

The twin-satellite ocean surveillance mission is part of a military space launch surge to launch eight additional Defense Dept. payloads through year-end. Five of them will be launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here.

“All three of our squadrons are very busy,” says Col. Scott Henderson, 45th Launch Group commander.

Many of the missions involve development on new technologies important for growing U. S. military space operations, such as ballistic missile defense and space surveillance.

As an indication of new allied dependence on space systems, two additional Delta II military missions, at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., will carry the first two of three Cosmo-SkyMed imaging radar spacecraft for the Italian Ministry of Defense.

The Atlas V ocean surveillance mission will be NRO’s first launch since the agency was stunned by the in-orbit failure of a $200-300-million class research and development spacecraft affiliated with the FIA program.

That NRO flight, designated L-21, was launched successfully from Vandenberg on a Delta II on Dec. 14, 2006 but then it suffered a catastrophic malfunction. The NRO has never commented publicly on the failure, but it has drawn substantial scrutiny by the Congress and other intelligence users in Washington.

The Atlas V ocean surveillance mission will fly a northern launch trajectory directly up the U. S. east coast to place the spacecraft into about a 1,000-km. (620-mi.) orbit to be inclined eventually about 63 deg. to the equator. The mission in June will be the first NRO flight of any kind of the Atlas V.

The other major U. S. military space missions scheduled for launch into orbit through 2007 are:

  • Mid-August: Cape launch of an Atlas V carrying the first USAF Boeing Wideband Gapfiller System (WGS) satellite to begin replacement of the aging Defense Satellite Communications Spacecraft (DSCS) series. “A single WGS spacecraft has as much bandwidth as the entire existing DSCS constellation,” says Lt. Col. John Wagner, 45th Space Wing Launch Support Sqdn. operations officer. “The spacecraft may arrive at the Cape by late May,” says Maj. Tom McIntyre, Spacecraft Flight commander. “They’ll do their initial testing at the Cape and verify they have good connectivity with the Air Force Satellite Control Network.”
  • Late summer: Cape Delta IV Heavy launch of final Defense Support Program (DSP) missile-warning spacecraft (AW&STApr. 9, p. 48).
  • Late Summer: Kawjalein SpaceX Falcon 1 launch of the TacSat-1 advanced technology satcom.
  • September: Cape launch of Delta II with the GPS 2R-17 navigation satellite.
  • October: Cape launch of an Atlas V carrying the NRO L-24 intelligence satellite.
  • Early November: Vandenberg launch of a Delta II carrying the Block 2010 Missile Defense Agency (MDA) kill vehicle development spacecraft. The Russian government has been especially concerned about MDA missions, and these developments were discussed in Moscow last weekby Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
  • Late November: Cape Launch of a Delta II carrying the first MDASpace Tracking and Surveillance System spacecraft.
  • December: Minotaur launch of the TacSat-3 spacecraft from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. At Vandenberg, key military space missions in 2007 include the two Italian military radar flights in early June and December.

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