Shaping the Future: Missile Detection System Advances With Help From Aerospace Experts

A SBIRS satellite is encapsulated in its payload fairing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in preparation for its Jan. 19 launch. Aerospace is proud to be recognized on the mission patch as part of the team. (Photo provided by U.S. Air Force)

A missile coming towards the United States is not something most Americans like to think about. Fortunately, someone has thought about it, and come up with a missile detection system that would warn the military if such an event were to occur.

That system is the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) and it is of vital importance to the protection of the nation.

“SBIRS is important because if any nation launches a ballistic missile against the US, we want to give the president as much time as possible to respond and defend the country,” said Russ Averill, general manager of Aerospace’s Space Based Sensing Division.

As Aerospace personnel are helping prepare for an upcoming SBIRS launch on Jan. 19, it seems an appropriate time to look at a system that is so crucial to national defense.

Essentially, SBIRS is composed of satellites that scan the Earth for infrared radiation, that is, heat, given off by missile plumes. Short wavelength infrared radiation is an ideal part of the spectrum to use for missile detection, as opposed to visible light, ultraviolet, etc., because it’s easier to quickly see the missile plume and separate it from the background.

There are SBIRS satellites flying over the equator, as well as SBIRS sensors hosted on satellites that go in a highly elliptical orbit over the poles. The system also uses older satellites from the Defense Support Program (DSP), which was the predecessor to SBIRS.

The various SBIRS sensors are capable of doing wide area scans as well as focusing in on a particular area. The data that is collected is sent to equipment on the ground that receives and processes the information—and a lot rides on making sure that information is accurate.

“It has to be reliable,” Averill said. “The message has to be fast and right.”

Accordingly, the team has continued to improve its capabilities, and SBIRS provides all kinds of new functionality compared to DSP.

“We’re seeing dimmer targets at faster rates,” Averill said, describing the current system as the culmination of 20 years of effort. “We’ve vastly improved our performance with the new ground system this year,” he said. “This system right now is pretty cool.”

Although SBIRS’ main functions are missile warning and defense, battlespace awareness, and technical intelligence, its usefulness extends into other areas. For example, in addition to sensing missiles, the satellites can detect and identify other heat sources, such as forest fires or volcanic eruptions.

Regardless of how the data is used, Aerospace is right there in the thick of it, providing the technical answers that enable the SBIRS mission to accomplish its goals.

For example, Aerospace was able to solve a tricky dilemma by developing an algorithm to help the satellites determine their position without using GPS, which might be necessary in a hostile situation.

Aerospace’s history with the program is extensive and provides the needed background to ensure continued mission success.

“Aerospace provides the technical backbone that sees across contractors and time,” Averill said. “We advise the government independently, making the system cost effective, as technically capable as possible, and providing mission assurance, making sure it works.”

—Laura Johnson