An Atlas 5 rocket blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Lompoc, Calif., April 3, carrying a satellite that will be used to monitor meteorological, oceanographic and solar-terrestrial physics for the Department of Defense.
The $518 million spacecraft, known as DMSP-19, is part of the Air Force’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, which provides global atmospheric, oceanic, terrestrial and space environment information to military and civilian users around the world. It is equipped with a suite of sensors capable of imaging cloud cover in visible and infrared light, measuring precipitation, surface temperature and soil moisture, and collecting space weather data.
The 2,720-pound spacecraft was lofted by a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5(401) liquid-fueled booster, designated AV-044 and nicknamed “Aurora” by members of the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg.
A combination of ideal weather conditions and the diligent efforts of team members from the wing’s 4th Space Launch Squadron and ULA ensured that the rocket lifted off right at the start of its 10-minute launch window. After ascending on a southerly trajectory, and following first-stage cutoff and separation, a single-engine Centaur upper stage boosted the spacecraft into a nearly polar, sun-synchronous orbit. Mission planners opted to place DMSP-19 in a terminator orbit, where it will remain directly above the boundary between the day and night sides of Earth.
Air Force Space Command manages all of the DMSP spacecraft, with operational support provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., is prime contractor for building the satellite. After more than half a century of operation, the DMSP is the longest running production satellite program ever. DSMP spacecraft are designed to provide cloud cover imagery from an altitude of about 500 miles above Earth’s surface. The previous launch in the series, DMSP-18, took place at Vandenberg in October 2009.
According to Lt. Col. Dan Daniels, commander of Detachment 1, 50th Operations Group, in Suitland, Md., the DMSP-19 spacecraft should be ready for operational use within about six weeks, following on-orbit testing.
“DMSP satellites provide the only high-resolution, strike quality, guaranteed meteorological data to the DOD,” Daniels said. “It’s one of the most critical, cross-cutting capabilities needed to ensure mission success across the spectrum of DOD operations.”
Capabilities provided by DMSP spacecraft occasionally provide unexpected benefits. In February 2013, the DMSP-16 spacecraft captured images of the trail left in the atmosphere by a 10,000-ton meteor that exploded in the sky above Chelyabinsk, Russia, injuring more than 1,000 people. Pictures from the satellite helped researchers estimate the fireball’s trajectory through the atmosphere, key data for determining the object’s origin and point of impact.
DMSP-19 is one of two 1990s-vintage Block 5D3 satellites that had been stored at Sunnyvale for the past 10 years. The Air Force refurbished the craft and installed upgraded sensors and navigational equipment after requesting $89 million for the effort in 2013. The second spacecraft, DMSP-20, is expected to launch in 2015. These two satellites are the last planned for the long running DMSP, but plans for a follow-on system have thus far been thwarted by delays, cost overruns and budget cuts.
In April 2012, while speaking to the Defense Writers Group in Washington, D.C., Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley admitted that the technology in the two aging DMSP spacecraft is “out-of-date,” but said they can still provide a useful capability. Problems with the suite of microwave and ultraviolet sensors aboard the DMSP-19 spacecraft had to be identified and fixed before it could be launched. This resulted in significant improvements according to Sue Stretch, DMSP program director at Lockheed Martin. “We’ve produced almost 50 defense weather satellites in 50 years, and our block 5D3 DMSP satellites deliver evolved capability,” she said.
The Defense Department was forced to continue its reliance on the DMSP system after cancellation of two proposed successors, both led by prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System began as a joint program of the DOD, Department of Commerce and NASA to replace a number of aging weather satellites, but it was cancelled in 2010 after falling more than five years behind schedule and going well over its planned budget. As a result, the White House directed NOAA and the Air Force to pursue separate systems. The Air Force portion, known as the Defense Weather Satellite System was terminated in January 2012 at the direction of Congress, which also provided $123.5 million for work on an unspecified follow-on system. Defense spokesmen said the move was in accordance with the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act and FY12 Consolidated Appropriations Act, and predicted that existing DMSP satellites would continue to provide timely, high-quality weather data for the foreseeable future.