Not long after a tornado ravaged Oklahoma in 2013, killing 24 people and causing billions of dollars of damage, U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) learned about an Air Force experiment he thought could lead to more accurate weather forecasts.

The experiment, known as Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, or CHIRP, put a missile warning sensor aboard the SES-2 commercial telecommunications satellite that launched in 2012.

After 27 months on orbit, the CHIRP sensor was shutdown in 2014 amid Air Force concerns about sequestration-driven budget cuts. Last year, Bridenstine urged the Air Force to reactivate the sensor on the grounds that the infrared data could help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produce more accurate and timely forecasts.

Bridenstine’s request was denied, but his prodding dovetailed with questions from other lawmakers asking what else the Air Force could do with its powerful and expensive missile-warning satellites besides detect missile launches.

The Pentagon is about to find out.

The Air Force is kicking off two new initiatives that, in some cases, would give other government agencies, research labs, universities and industry access to sensitive missile warning imagery in the hopes of finding new military and civilian uses for the data.

Later this month, the Air Force will formally open the doors to the Remote Sensing Data Exploitation Lab in Boulder, Colorado, to develop new tools and applications for data from the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites. SBIRS presently includes two roughly schoolbus-size satellites in geosynchronous orbits, and two payloads hosted on classifed satellites in highly elliptical orbits, providing infrared signatures of heat events across the world. Data from those events is then used to alert the Defense Department to missile launches. The lab, which will be up and running by the end of April, is expected to be fully operational this summer.

In addition, by the end of the year, the Air Force expects to task the 11th Space Warning Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with experimenting with new ways of using SBIRS data. The squadron currently helps fly the SBIRS satellites and hosted SBIRS payloads, but new ground control software and advanced automation will allow the Air Force to assign staff to work on staying ahead of adversaries by scouring the data for new uses.

Col. John Wagner, who leads the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, the home to the SBIRS operations center, summed up the new initiatives this way: “It’s five words,” he said. “What else can we see?”

For more than a decade, SBIRS was a poster child for the Air Force’s space acquisition woes. After a series of false starts to replace the Defense Support Program satellites that have been providing early warning of ballistic missile launches since 1970, the Air Force set out in the mid 1990s to build SBIRS. The system was expected to cost $5 billion with a first launch in 2002. Today, after re-structuring and delays, the program now encompasses six dedicated satellites built to fly in geosynchronous orbits for a persistent, overhead view of missile launches and four additional SBIRS payloads hosted aboard classified satellites flying in elliptical orbits that provide a grazing-angle view of missile fields around the globe.

The first geosynchronous satellite did not launch until 2011, nine years later than originally expected. SBIRS’ $19 billion development price tag is nearly four times the early estimates.

SBIRS has since turned the corner on its troubled development. The first two SBIRS HEO payloads hitched a ride on separate spy satellites in 2006 and 2008 while the first two dedicated SBIRS satellites, GEO 1 and 2, were launched aboard Atlas 5 rockets in 2011 and 2013. A third SBIRS GEO satellite is on tap to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in July, while a fourth is in storage awaiting a 2017 launch. The fifth and sixth SBIRS GEOs remain in production at Lockheed Martin’s Sunnyvale, California, satellite factory.

The Defense Department uses SBIRS to detect a launch, identify what kind of missile or rocket was fired, determine its trajectory and, if necessary, cue a missile intercept. Outside that primary role, SBIRS also can provide the U.S. with technical intelligence on all manner of launches and provide combatant commanders with battle space awareness by detecting non-launch-related infrared events.


“It’s five words: what else can we see?”

-Col. John Wagner


“We’ve known for a  long time [that] once we got these sensors on orbit we would see things we didn’t know we could see.”

– Col. Mike Guetlein

Air Force officials are careful not to describe SBIRS’s exact capabilities, but in interviews at Buckley Air Force Base, they said the satellites’ sensors can detect any significant “heat event.” To put it in perspective, they say SBIRS detected 8,000 events of interest to combatant commanders in 2014. Think artillery f lashes and explosions, not natural events such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions.

And they say the sensors are getting better.

Last year, SBIRS satellites detected more than 10,000 heat events of interest. The math works out to a little more than one event per hour.

But due to the program’s high price tag, lawmakers are anxious to see exactly what untapped capabilities SBIRS can provide beyond its missile warning duties.

“We have not even scratched the surface, I think, of the potential that’s there,” Gen. William Shelton, then the head of Air Force Space Command, said during a 2014 House Armed Services Committee hearing. “We have another sensor that we haven’t fully exploited yet as part of that [GEO] satellite.”

Each SBIRS GEO satellite in geosynchronous orbit has two main sensors: one that scans large areas and one that maintains constant surveillance of smaller areas to provide more timely warning of missile launches. In addition, legacy DSP satellites (the Air Force won’t say how many remain in service) scan the globe once every 10 seconds. Air Force officials say SBIRS is even faster, but won’t say by how much.

“We’ve known for a long time that once we got these sensors on orbit we would see things we didn’t know we could see,” said Col. Mike Guetlein, head of the remote sensing directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. “We also know that industry has a lot of innovative ideas, as well as academia, but because we were so focused on missile warning we never brought that idea to bear.”

Perhaps the most important change for SBIRS is recent work on a new ground system. The Pentagon is expected to sign off on the first part of a long-standing upgrade, known as Block 10 and led by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, by the end of the year. This new system allows the Air Force to operate the legacy DSP satellites, the SBIRS GEO satellites and the HEO payloads from the same ground system, rather than relying on three separate systems as is the case now. The Block 10 upgrade also brings the SBIRS starer sensor online.

The Air Force's legacy DSP satellites scan the globe for IR events every 10 seconds. SIRS is even faster. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The Air Force’s legacy DSP satellites scan the globe for IR events every 10 seconds. SIRS is even faster. Credit: U.S. Air Force

SBIRS has become so important to the Defense Department that the satellites’ ground control station at Buckley has been given the same protection level designation DoD gives facilities that control nuclear weapons.

Wagner describes the missile warning work that happens at Buckley as a “no-fail mission.”

“You’ve got to get it right,” he said. “You’ve got to get it perfect.”

What goes unsaid is that without SBIRS, the Defense Department would be slower to pick up on a missile launch headed toward the United States, defeating the point of a strategic nuclear deterent.

But because the Air Force has been so focused on what Wagner calls “Persistent Global Surveillance” — he has the motto displayed in several locations across the 460th headquarters — other parts of SBIRS capabilities, mainly battle space awareness, which provides information on what’s happening in theater, did not get the same attention.

Air Force officials now say they are tasking the satellites to look at a particular part of the world at least once a day.

“Battlespace awareness is really the growth center,” Wagner said. “We’re just now exploring the possibilities of these sensors.”

So what exactly will these new explorations find?

The Air Force won’t hazard a public guess. In the past, officials have said missile-warning sensors such as CHIRP could support federal and international agencies dealing with events such as volcanoes, floods, snow and ice accumulation, electrical grid blackouts and forest fires.

As a means of comparison, the CHIRP payload on SES-2 collected more than 300 terabytes of data on 70 launches and 150 other thermal events, according to satellite fleet operator SES. The Air Force observed more than 400 launches — including a fair number of space launches — with SBIRS last year.

Guetlein said he was overwhelmed with positive feedback at this April’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs from industry and lab reps anxious to work with SBIRS data.

“They’ve all got ideas on how it will work,” he said. “There are a lot of civil and environmental opportunities there if we can figure out how to get through the classification issues. I’ve got some industry partners who want to solve a specific civil and environmental problem and I have some industry partners who want to solve the classification problem.”

The Air Force’s new spirt of cooperation isn’t purely selfless.

The better the Air Force understands weather, for example, the more they can tune SBIRS sensors to filter out noise and get more accurate readings of the heat events, Guetlein said.

In addition, he said, the new data applications could potentially reduce some of the weather observation gaps the Air Force is struggling to close.

DoD plans to fill some of its weather gaps by turning to international partners or purchasing weather data from private firms. But SBIRS’ infrared sensors “can definitely contribute to some of the weather requirements,” Guetlein said.

The changes will also likely appease lawmakers. Bridenstine earlier this month introduced a sweeping space policy reform bill, the American Space Renaissance Act, that would require the DoD to examine SBIRS data for “useful weather data.”

“I encourage any efforts by the Department of Defense to maximize SBIRS, a unique capability with high revisit rates and polar reach,” Bridenstine said in an email to SpaceNews. “I continue to encourage DoD and other agencies to restart CHIRP, which could use infrared data to enhance wildfire detection and weather forecasting. The DoD should study how SBIRS can contribute to these and other non-military efforts.”

At the same time, the Air Force, along with L-3 Communications and Millennium Space Systems, is building a wide-field-of-view testbed satellite to experiment with digital missile warning payloads, a technology that is expected to generate significantly more data than the current SBIRS satellites.

By learning how to better use the data they have now, once the experimental satellite launches (Guetlein said there is no notional launch date after problems developing the sensor) the Air Force may find additional gems — and the dimmer targets it is looking for.

“We are on a very fast train. You are almost at a revolution … as we start understanding what we can do with this [Overhead Persistent Infrared] data,” he said.

“Now that you bring weather and OPIR together, into the same lab, the opportunities are endless.”