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U.S. military to have two new 'eyes' in the skies

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jul 24, 2014, 0:42 UTC

Sen—A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket was being prepared for launch Wednesday to put a pair of recently declassified satellites into orbit that the U.S. Air Force will use to monitor other countries’ spacecraft and track orbital debris.

Liftoff of the Delta 4 rocket with the twin Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP, satellites is slated for 7:03 p.m. EDT (2303 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. A third engineering test satellite, called ANGELS, is aboard the rocket as well.

The GSSAP satellites will be put into orbits above and below the 22,300-mile high zone where geosynchronous spacecraft fly. As the term implies, satellites at this altitude circle at the same speed and in the same direction as Earth rotates, effectively pinning each spacecraft over a particular part of the equator.

GSSAP however won’t be focused on Earth below. Once operational, the twin birds will keep watch on the hundreds of communications and other satellites in the neighborhood. A second goal of the mission is to supplement observations by ground-based radar and telescopes that track and monitor potentially dangerous orbital debris.

"These … systems will enhance the nation's ability to monitor and assess events regarding our military and commercial systems. In essence, they will create a space neighborhood watch capability,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement.

The secondary payload, called Automated Navigation and Guidance Experiment for Local Space, or ANGELS, is a technology testbed that will explore different detection techniques using the upper-stage engine of the Delta rocket.

“The experiments conducted with ANGELS will allow the United States to safely operate future space situational awareness satellites in a more efficient, effective and autonomous manner,” Air Force Research Laboratory commander Thomas Masiello said in a statement.

All three of the satellites that comprise the AFSPC 4 mission were built by Orbital Sciences Corp.

The mission was declassified in February.