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Florida nuke experts witness payload launch into orbit

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • AFTAC Public Affairs

Scientists and engineers from the Air Force Technical Applications Center had the rare opportunity to see the realization of their work aboard the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program Satellite 6, or STPSat-6, and witness the fruits of their labor hurtle into the atmosphere from Space Launch Complex-41 at 5:19 a.m., Dec. 7 aboard an Atlas V rocket.
 
The spacecraft will deploy two U.S. Space Force technology demonstration satellites into a geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles above the earth that will be used to advance warfighting capabilities in the areas of nuclear detonation detection, space domain awareness, and communication.
 
Several weeks before the rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral on a foggy Florida morning, select members of the nuclear treaty monitoring center were invited to tour Astrotech’s Titusville, Fla., facilities as the final tests and evaluations were performed on the $1 billion multi-use satellite. The lead contractor, Northrup Grumman, has been working on this project for the past six years in partnership with Astrotech and the U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command.
 
As this multi-organizational team worked toward mission accomplishment, each had a specific role to play. Astrotech provided launch preparations facilities and related services for the spacecraft prior to launch. Northrup Grumman’s space systems and strategic deterrence expertise enabled the development and acquisition of the satellite. SSC was responsible for on-orbit check out and testing, as well as early sustainment and maintenance of STPSat-6.
 
The satellite first arrived at Astrotech’s Central Florida facility May 6 after being safely transported by Northrop Grumman from their space headquarters in Dulles, Va., where the vehicle was built and tested prior to the final steps in spacecraft processing: functional testing, fueling and integration with the launch vehicle.
 
Once the functional testing was completed, the payload slowly lumbered its way via flatbed from Astrotech’s facility to the vehicle inspection facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. This stage of the process marked the start of final spacecraft processing, which included launch site functional testing, fueling, and integrating the Long Duration Propulsive ESPA-1 (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter) rideshare spacecraft with the powerful Atlas V launch vehicle.
 
AFTAC is the premier customer for STPSat-6. The primary operational payload is the Space and Atmospheric Burst Reporting System, better known as SABRS, which is designed to complement nuclear detonation detectors aboard GPS spacecraft.
 
In support of the U.S. Nuclear Detection System, the space-based payload will help AFTAC and its mission partners monitor global nuclear detonations from more than 20,000 miles above the earth. AFTAC, in partnership with Los Alamos National Laboratory, uses data from the on-board technology to detect nuclear explosions in the atmosphere and in space.
 
“Essentially, STPSat-6 will advance our warfighting capabilities by delivering operational nuclear detonation detection capabilities in the space domain,” said Dave Merker, director of AFTAC’s Systems Development Directorate. “This launch is significant for AFTAC as we continually look for ways to expand our space access to deliver critical ‘nudet’ data to our national decision makers.”
 
During AFTAC’s visit to the Titusville facility, Brian Gore, senior program manager for Northrup Grumman and systems lead on STPSat-6, explained why this satellite is so important.
 
“This is historic – not just for one reason, but for nine reasons,” he said.  “There are nine different payloads with nine unique missions on the satellite from a cross-section of U.S. government stakeholders: the Air Force, the Navy, NASA, LANL, National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Energy, just to name a few.  It’s also historic because this is the largest spacecraft we can fit into our chamber here, which gives everyone involved a sense of pride knowing they’re part of something so monumental.”
 
The satellite and its host technologies weigh in at about 6,000 pounds – relatively light for having several payloads aboard – but much of the technology being deployed is compact and lightweight, which makes it even more advantageous to house multiple missions on a single satellite.
 
Parveen Kapoor, flight chief of Atmosphere and Space Operations at AFTAC’s 23rd Analysis Squadron, has been heavily involved with STPSat-6 since as early as 2016.
 
“For the past five years, I’ve worked to secure advocacy and funding from senior policy makers and took every opportunity to stress the importance of the program,” she said.  “Whenever key leaders visited AFTAC, I would seize every opportunity to explain how vital this program is to national security. It’s been a long road, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to witness it being deployed into orbit, but what a sigh of relief it was to see it launch!”
 
She added, “It’s almost like watching your child grow from infancy to adulthood, and seeing them finally graduate!  I wasn’t the only ‘parent’ of this child, however; there was an entire team who made it possible, and I know each of them had a lot of emotions going on as the rocket lifted off – lots of joy, immense pride, and a huge sense of satisfaction knowing we were part of something so important to the defense of our nation. I’m so grateful to have played a role in it.”