Air Force AEHF-4 Satellite Arrives in Florida for October Atlas V Launch
Lockheed Martin’s fourth AEHF satellite in processing before being shipped to Cape Canaveral for launch atop a ULA Atlas V rocket in October for the U.S. Air Force. Two other AEHF satellites are in production as well. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin
The U.S. Air Force’s fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-4) satellite, which will become part of a constellation to replace the outdated Milstar network in providing fast and secure communications to link U.S. and allied civilian leaders with warfighters and military assets, anywhere in the world, has arrived at Cape Canaveral for launch as soon as early October.
Built by Lockheed Martin, the 13,000+ pound spacecraft was shipped from their Sunnyvale, California facility to Florida’s Space Coast on July 27 aboard a U.S. Air Force C-5 transport aircraft, following a successful battery of tests and realistic simulations of its future launch experience to ensure it will arrive on orbit functionally sound and ready to operate through the extreme temperature changes of space.
Now at its launch site, the satellite will undergo final launch checkouts, propellant loading and preparations for flight atop the largest and most powerful of ULA’s Atlas V fleet, the rarely used powerhouse Atlas V ‘551’ rocket, as soon as early October.
The ‘551’ variant of the Atlas V boasts a 17-foot-wide (5-meter) payload fairing, five strap-on solid-fueled rockets and a single-engine Centaur upper stage. First used in January 2006 to loft NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto, the 551 has since seen service to deliver NASA’s Juno spacecraft to Jupiter in August 2011 and five heavyweight Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) military communications satellites for the U.S. NAVY between February 2012 and June 2016. It also launched the AFSPC-11 mission to orbit for the U.S. Air Force earlier this year.
The satellites operate at extreme high frequencies (44 GHz uplink) and super-high frequencies (20 GHz downlink), and can relay communications directly without passing through ground stations. Their phased array antennas help to eliminate possible sources of radio jamming, and each AEHF spacecraft can support data rates as high as 8.192 Mbits/sec.
A single AEHF satellite provides greater total capacity than the entire legacy five-satellite Milstar.
Launch of AEHF-4 was moved to October of this year after a power regulator issue was discovered.
“With government concurrence, we established both hardware and operational courses of action to mitigate the issue, and we’re pleased to see this delivery take place,” said a Lockheed spokesperson.
“Four AEHF satellites in orbit means protected global connectivity for those who need it most, from the president to deployed soldiers,” said Michael Cacheiro, Lockheed Martin vice president of Protected Communications. “We offer powerful end-to-end systems so that more operational users can have assured connectivity in contested environments. Delivering this fourth satellite in orbit will be critical to the Air Force, as it will connect all four satellites on orbit, forming a geostationary ring to provide uninterrupted global communications.”
Once on orbit, AEHF-4 will, “complete the minimum constellation of AEHF satellites needed to bring global Extended Data Rate (XDR) connectivity to warfighters and international partners,” says Lockheed.
“XDR adds an unprecedented protected communication capability, providing 10 times more communications throughput than the legacy MILSTAR constellation,” stated Cacheiro.
The satellite enables military communications with real-time video, battlefield maps and targeting data, boosted by a five-fold increase in individual user data rates.
Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom all use the AEHF satellites as well.
AEHF-4 (foreground) with the antenna wings extended and AEHF-5 (background) visible in the open DELTA chamber for thermal testing. Photo: Lockheed Martin
Lockheed is under contract to deliver a total of six AEHF satellites to the U.S. Air Force, and the Mission Control Segment. And while AEHF-4 nears launch, AEHF-5 is currently in system-level testing in Sunnyvale, and is expected to follow AEHF-4 with launch from the Cape in mid-2019.
And while no launch date is set yet for AEHF-6, Lockheed says it’s development is progressing on schedule.
The AEHF team is led by the U.S. Air Force Military Satellite Communications Systems Directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. Lockheed Martin Space, Sunnyvale, Calif., is the AEHF prime contractor and system manager, with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, Redondo Beach, Calif., as the satellite payload provider.
What it’s like to fly a billion-dollar satellite on the US Air Force’s largest plane
The California heat is stifling as we climb the 14-foot ladder into the passenger compartment of the C-5 Galaxy, the largest plane flown by the US Air Force. I had been told to expect a cold flight, and wore four layers of clothing. Now, sweat drips down my face. Everyone wears ear protection to drown out the engulfing noise of the four van-size jet engines hanging from the wings. A passing airman’s backpack bears a patch with the slogan “Embrace the Suck.” Good advice.
This flight is not built to suit passengers. Below, in the belly of the aircraft, sits 35 tons (32 metric tons) of equipment—an ultra-secure military communications satellite, and all the gear to transport such a spacecraft on earth. The satellite is encased in a white container custom-built to fit this aircraft. The entire cargo is valued at $1.3 billion.
“I think that may have been the most expensive cargo I’ve ever flown,” the pilot, captain Mike Zeleski, told me later.
In October, this satellite is to be placed on top of a rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and launched into space, designed to become a vital cog in US national security. First, it has to get there. And that’s where the big plane comes in.
We boarded on a ladder from the tarmac at Moffett Field, California, and scampered to the rear of the aircraft along a narrow gantry between the interior wall and the satellite container, before stepping down onto the metal deck of the aircraft. There, we can appreciate the scale of the cargo bay, which stretches 19 feet (6 meters) wide and extends 121 feet (57 meters)—longer than the distance covered by Orville Wright’s first flight. You can fit six Apache helicopters in there, or, I’m told, more than 25 million ping pong balls. (Only the former has been attempted.)
A second ladder just in front of the enormous rear doors of the cargo bay takes us to elevated passenger compartment. The 12 rows of airline seats with rough blue upholstery looked 15 years old—which is excellent, since they are far roomier than the modern United Airlines seat I’ll endure on my return flight.
The other travelers are the team of Lockheed Martin employees responsible for building the satellite and transporting it to its destination, from the engineer in charge of the satellite, Kevin Au, to specially trained truck drivers, and the Air Force officers responsible for the government contract to build the satellite, led by lieutenant colonel Paul Muller. There is just one woman, Rachel Morford, an engineer who works for the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, an independent technical adviser to the government on the contract.
Thick, knotted ropes hang in front of the hatches, helpfully labeled “Emergency Escape Rope.” In a brief safety presentation, the loadmaster says that rather than drop-down oxygen masks, the plane carries an EPOS—Emergency Passenger Oxygen System. By all appearances, these are hoods you put over your head. Per the airman, the air they supply will last about five to six minutes and, ruminatively, he observes: “Make sure, if you need to use it, to regulate your breathing.” I imagine situations where the plane depressurizes and I must don the hood. I practice regulating my breathing.
As we take off, the engine noise grows—they did not spend much time worrying about sound-proofing. The rows of seats are rear facing, and there is a sense of sliding out of your seat as the plane arcs upward. In flight, the tiny cabin, once over-heated, became chill, and I soon re-donned the layers I had stripped off. The real care is lavished on the cargo.
The size and power of the C-5 makes it finicky. The night before, as the satellite was brought aboard, airmen discovered a malfunction in the aircraft’s pressure system. With a normal payload, the plane would have flown anyway, with the cargo bay much hotter than usual. That wouldn’t do for the delicate satellite. Mechanics from Travis Air Force Base in California, where the plane is stationed, drove several hours in the middle of the night with spare parts to fix the problem.
Au turns and bumps fists with a colleague once we are clear of the runway. They have good reason to celebrate: Their satellite, after years of work, is inching closer to the finish line. It had been scheduled to launch in 2017, but a faulty component required a re-design and more delays. Now, it was good to be in the air, if not yet in orbit.
Throughout the five-hour flight to Florida, technicians periodically descend into the cargo hold to check on the satellite. I head down for an inspection tour of my own, uneasily eyeing the large bay door as I climb back down the vibrating ladder.
Behind the satellite crate, there is a long flatbed truck, covered in metal rollers, to provide ground transportation. On the truck, there are pallets loaded with crates of equipment, a fork-lift to unload them, as well as a large trailer that provides environmental control—the satellite’s own portable air conditioner. A computer displays information from sensors inside the satellite container that track temperature, humidity and vibration. The interior is filled with nitrogen pumped from dozens of tanks to create a neutral atmosphere. The cargo bay is even louder than the passenger compartment, and I scream questions directly into Au’s ear.
Space travel, it turns out, needs more than rockets: It must mobilize the biggest planes and specially designed trucks, certified pilots and drivers to operate them, meteorologists to watch out for rainstorms, technicians to watch out for turbulence, and field-grade military officers to oversee the whole operation. The next time you watch an rocket launch, remember that few minutes of fiery acceleration is just the last leg in a very long journey.
We are here because of nuclear warfare
Muller entered the service as a military physicist—a real job, he assures me—and spent the beginning of his career working on nuclear detection and deterrence. For the last several years, he has worked at Space and Missile Command developing this satellite system and procuring this satellite.
It’s a good reminder that we are all gathered in this plane because of nuclear war.
Nuclear weapons catalyzed the new global economy in many ways, perhaps nowhere more so than in aerospace. Bigger, faster planes were needed to deliver nuclear weapons. Rockets, in fact, might be a better delivery method, and early ballistic missile research quickly became the foundation of the space program. The technology of Earth-imaging developed to spy on nuclear programs from above, with spy satellites eventually used to verify treaties limiting atomic weapons. Although Jimmy Carter was not interested in space, the shuttle program survived his presidency because it could put weapons-spotting satellites into orbit.
Presidents and their nuclear weapons must always be connected, according to US military doctrine. Effective deterrence requires everyone to know that the president will always be able to tell submarines in remote oceans or missile silos along the coast or bombers in the mid-air that it’s time to end the world. One way the Air Force makes this possible is with a satellite program known as AEHF—Advanced Extremely High Frequency.
It’s a not-so-catchy name for what will eventually be six satellites orbiting the world, a ultra-secure network for US forces, as well as the militaries of key American allies the UK, the Netherlands and Canada. It’s hard to understate how important this network will be to the ability of the US military to project force throughout the world, from counter-insurgency in the Middle East and hunting pirates in the Indian Ocean to surveilling North Korea’s weapons programs. The entire program costs more than $15 billion, making it one of the pricier defense acquisitions, though nowhere near as expensive as major ships and aircraft. Three satellites are already in orbit, 22,000 miles above the Earth.
The latest addition to the constellation
Space Vehicle Four, in the container below us, weighs about 9,000 lbs without fuel, and the common comparison for its size is a jumbo-size transit van. Effectively, it’s a rectangular box, with two solar arrays on opposite faces that fold out in orbit, and two panels of antennae that fold down to face Earth. The guts of the satellite were designed and built by Lockheed Martin, the enormous US defense contractor, while its communications instruments were built by Northrop Grumman, the only slightly less enormous US defense contractor. Lockheed also built the C-5 the satellite flew on.
The satellite was assembled at the company’s campus in Sunnyvale, California, nestled in Silicon Vally next to Moffett Airfield, once a key home of America’s dirigible force, now operated by Google. The Sunnyvale team operates clean rooms and runs the super-size flying robot through a battery of tests that shake it, roast it, and toast it with radio energy, all to ensure that in space, it will work without fail. It could work nowhere else: Its structures are designed for microgravity—if the solar wings extended to their full 76-foot span on Earth, they would collapse under their own weight.
AEHF spacecraft have many unique features. When special forces in the field rely on them to stay in touch, the satellites automatically hop from frequency to frequency to dodge enemy attempts to jam it. Each spacecraft is directly linked to the other satellites in the constellation, so information doesn’t need be sent down to ground systems where it can be intercepted. It promises to deliver data to users at a speed of 8 mbps, faster than the connection to my home wifi network right now.
Most importantly, and expensively, it can survive a nuclear strike. Atomic explosions release bursts of electrical energy that can fry computers, even in orbit. This satellite is hardened to pass through such energy blasts unscathed. More than that, if the satellite loses touch with its control system on the ground, it can operate autonomously, continuing to provide service to its users. It’s the kind of communications network that sends a message of deterrence just by existing, since it would (presumably) survive a nuclear first strike. Au, proud of his work, scoffed a bit at the attention received by autonomous drone and car companies. His vehicle is operating at the real technological frontier.
It is likely the satellite can do even more impressive things. I became familiar with a certain type of reaction whenever I asked officers or engineers questions about its classified capabilities—a brief burst of meaningful eye contact among the participants, a studious resetting of their facial expressions, and a promise “to get back to you on that one.”
I wasn’t able to see the satellite outside of its container. The images of the spacecraft shared in this article are tightly controlled by the US Air Force and Lockheed Martin, down to the color of the background lighting. The public-affairs officer for the AEHF satellite program at Space and Missile Command didn’t respond to multiple e-mails about the project. These images showing a satellite going into and out of its container are actually of a different Lockheed satellite (one that spots enemy missiles with infrared surveillance) because it will take a month for various bureaucrats to approve publication of similar pictures of Space Vehicle Four.
A satellite roughly the same size as Space Vehicle Four is loaded into a transport container.
The grand unboxing
Dodging thunder storms, the plane makes its way across the country at nearly 600 miles per hour. Zeleski’s Air Mobility Command unit flies these satellite transport missions seven or eight times a year. More often, his team is moving troops or military equipment from the US to the Pacific, Europe or the Middle East. If necessary, the C-5 can make such trips without stopping or re-fueling. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Zeleski was tasked to fly in a colossal generator that allowed the island to turn on its air-traffic control system again, bringing in a flood of aid by plane. He’s an instructor pilot, with some 1,800 hours in the C-5 alone. Ahead of this mission, he practiced landing extra-heavy planes to make sure he had the right feel for it.
Today, he coming down a nearly three mile-long runway at Kennedy Space Center, originally designed for shuttles winging their way back from orbit. For a passenger facing backwards, the landing too, a weird sensation, is smooth as silk. We coast gently down the runway to avoid any jarring from the brakes. As soon as we’ve taxied to the tarmac, the unloading team is already bounding down the ladder to check the satellite and begin preparing for its exit from the vehicle.
We touch down at about 8:15pm eastern time, with twilight fast approaching. Large floodlights are set up in a circle around the aircraft to prepare for the overnight unloading process. Bugs swarm them and us. Now I get to see the Lockheed team and their Air Force counterparts at work.
Perhaps 40 people are in action around the plane, many flown here in advance to meet us at landing. In contrast to the trim and youthful airmen in flight suits or fatigues, the Lockheed team tends toward the middle-aged and thick in the waist, wearing jeans, T-shirts, baseball caps and nylon-surfaced modern work boots with metal toes. They are the kind of people who carry multi-tools, who measure twice, and who operate from thick binders detailing the procedures for the work they are about to do. Many are military veterans. Before each stage of the unloading process, they huddle to talk through every step.
The concept is simple: First the back of the plane opens, and the specially designed flatbed truck drives out. The forklift takes all the crates and the mobile air-conditioner off the truck, which drives around to the front of the plane.
All of this will take hours. The overnight operation ensures that Florida’s typical summer afternoon thunderstorms won’t drench the satellite and its crew. Distant crackles of heat lightning worry the team, which is in radio contact with the weather squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. Nasty weather is at least 12 miles away and remaining there, they are told. The 44th Space Wing also provides two trucks bristling with antennae that detect nearby radio energy that might harm the satellite.
While the workers and airmen confer under the watchful eyes of a Lockheed safety official, the head of security and a pair of quality-assurance engineers who stand over a small cart loaded with binders of documentation.
The team is scheduled to depart in a convoy at 2am, which will wind out of the Kennedy Space Center to a processing facility in nearby Titusville. It will crawl at 20 mph, with cars running ahead to block intersections. At 5:30am, it will arrive, and a few hours later, they will finally take the satellite out of the box. Next up, it will undergo weeks of tests to ensure it is ready to head to space. After, the satellite will be fueled and encased in an aerodynamic nose cone built by United Launch Alliance, which builds and operates the Atlas V rocket that will carry Space Vehicle Four into orbit. (ULA is a Lockheed joint venture with Boeing.) In October, the enclosed satellite will take another overnight convoy back to Cape Canaveral, where it will be loaded on top of a rocket and launched into space.
The end is in sight
The scale of this project—just moving this thing across country required five private organizations, two different wings of the Air Force, and probably 60 people—gives context for its stratospheric cost.
It may also be a vanishing model. The paradox of these delicate military satellites is that they are mainly protected by their ultimate isolation, circling tens of thousands of miles above at nearly 7,000 mph. It’s just hard to get up there and hit them. Yet as space technology grows easier to access, their safety is increasingly in question. Anti-satellite missile systems developed by China and Russia keep military strategists up at night. They are now beginning to predict the end of mega-satellites and a move towards swarms of smaller, redundant satellites that will be harder to attack.
That may make trips like this one obsolete, but not for a decade or more—the space-industrial complex moves at the same glacial pace as the satellite container inching out of the C-5 in front of me. A handful of technicians are in the plane, pushing the container from behind (elbow grease can be as reliable as a mechanical means in a delicate situation). Outside, others check and re-check the alignment of the flatbed with flashlights and measuring tape. It’s nearly midnight by the time the satellite is fully on the truck.
Once it’s out, team leaders begin to turn in. Like giddy children on Christmas Eve, they need some rest before opening their present.
The satellite is completely out of the C-5 as its convoy prepares to depart.
United Launch Alliance to Launch AEHF Satellite Wednesday
United Launch Alliance is set to launch a AEHF communications satellite aboard an Atlas V rocket on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. (File)
BREVARD COUNTY, Florida -- United Launch Alliance is set to launch a communications satellite for the U.S. Air Force on Wednesday.
- ULA to launch communications satellite Wednesday
- The two-hour launch window opens at 12:15 a.m.
- An Atlas V rocket will carry the AEHF satellite for the U.S. Air Force
The launch will take place at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
An Atlas V rocket will carry the fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite into orbit.
The satellite will provide highly-secure connectivity for U.S. national leadership and deployed military forces.
It will join the first three AEHF satellites which launched in 2010, 2012, and 2013.
Wednesday's launch will mark the 131st mission for ULA.
The two-hour launch window opens at 12:15 a.m. ET.
Tuesday @ 8:30 a.m. (1230 UTC)
Join us this evening for live reports throughout the Atlas V countdown to the AEHF-4 satellite launch. Our updates from the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center will begin on this page at 5:15 p.m. EDT (2115 UTC), just prior to initiating the countdown.
Liftoff of the Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida is scheduled for 12:15 a.m. EDT (0415 UTC).
The official launch weather forecast from the 45th Weather Squadron continues to predict an 80 percent chance of favorable
ATLAS V TO LAUNCH AEHF-4
• Rocket: Atlas V 551
• Mission: AEHF-4
• Launch Date: Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018
• Launch Time: 12:15-2:15 a.m. EDT
• Launch Broadcast: Tune in Oct. 16 at 11:55 p.m. EDT
• Launch Location: Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
Mission Information: United Launch Alliance will use an Atlas V 551 rocket to launch the fourth communications satellite in the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) series for the U.S. Air Force.
AEHF satellites provide highly-secure, jam-proof connectivity between U.S. national leadership and deployed military forces. Atlas V rockets successfully launched the first three AEHF satellites in 2010, 2012 and 2013 as the new constellation was formed in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above Earth.
Launch Notes: This will be 131st mission for United Launch Alliance and our 50th launch for the Air Force. It is the 79th for an Atlas V rocket and the 9th in the 551 configuration.
Update: 17.10.2018 / 7.50 MESZ
Erfolgreicher Start von Atlas V mit Air Force AEHF-4 Satelliten