At 5:19 a.m., Dec. 7, 2021, while many along Florida’s space coast likely slept, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V at Cape Canaveral SFS, Florida, powered the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-3 mission and two satellites into space.
The STP is managed by Space Force’s Space Systems Command out of Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
It provides mission design, spacecraft acquisition, integration launch, and on-orbit operations support for DOD science and technology experiments.
According to the U.S. Space Force, the satellites were STP Satellite-6 and the Long Duration Propulsive Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter — 1.
The primary spacecraft on the mission, STPSat-6, will advance warfighting capabilities by delivering operational nuclear detonation detection capabilities and demonstrate new space technologies in the areas of space domain awareness, weather, and laser communications. While LDPE-1 is designed to carry experimental payloads intended to support rapid risk reduction efforts to inform future programs.
The STP-3 mission will benefit service members, as well as private citizens, said Col. Carlos Quinones, DOD STP director.
“The payloads we are sending into orbit, within SAT-6, will support nuclear detection capability for America, as well as our ability to conduct laser communication, which has the potential to send and receive information at incredible speeds,” Quinones said.
“We are also sending up multiple experiments to support weather forecasting, radiation hardening, and advancements with future computer systems,” he added. “We are bundling capabilities and taking advantage of all the space in our space vehicle and pushing technology that will support a more robust space capability.”
The laser communication Quinones described will be possible through NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration system, which was affixed to SAT-6 prior to launch. The system uses infrared lasers to send data to and from space.
Nidhin Babu, NASA’s LCRD deputy project manager, said the system will test laser communication capabilities in geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface.
“Currently, our standard communication is through radio waves and there are limitations to that,” Babu said. “With LCRD, we will be able to use infrared light to send and receive increased amounts of data, between modules in space to locations on Earth.”
With lasers, Babu explained, NASA can relay 1.2 gigabytes of information per second and up to 100 times more information than what is now possible with radio frequencies.
Obtaining more information quicker will have several benefits, Quinones said.
“Timely communication and exchange of information is absolutely critical, especially as we continue to explore space,” he said. “With this technology, we can move large volumes of data faster so it can be delivered when needed, so we can perform the analysis necessary to support the missions we are executing.”
Quinones also emphasized how proud he is of the team that came together to make the STP-3 mission possible.
“We have a fantastic team and being a part of it has been the highlight of my career,” he said. “The Airmen, Guardians, civilians, and contractors on the team worked countless hours to support this mission. From design to testing, to modifications. I could not be more proud of them and all they have accomplished. They are committed to ensuring we are on the right track and the nation has what it needs to stay safe and continues to prosper.”
Among those team members is Ron Fortson, ULA director, and general manager of launch operations, who said everyone at ULA is thrilled to support DOD missions.
“The partnership between ULA and the Space Force allows us to connect through a common purpose — delivering new capabilities in space and STP-3 is a great example of that,” he said. “It’s a complex mission that included thousands of inspections over four years and daily coordination with Space Force Guardians, who provide mission assurance and work with us to ensure everything goes as planned.”
The U.S. has partnered with ULA for more than six decades and Fortson said he hopes that relationship continues.
“With the Space Test Program, we are supporting national security missions that help save lives and keep our service members safe,” he said. “That’s why we are a part of this partnership. We are launching some of our nation’s most important assets and we look forward to continuing and advancing our partnership.”