A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off March 19 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rocket is carrying a missile warning satellite for the Air Force. (Craig Bailey / Florida Today via AP)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A new-generation U.S. missile-warning satellite is climbing toward a top-secret location 22,300 miles above Earth after launching aboard a powerful Atlas V rocket on Tuesday.
The launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station came just four days after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel countered a growing threat from North Korea with a $1 billion bid to shore up ballistic missile defense on the U.S. West Coast.
The timing is coincidental — preparations for Tuesday’s launch were ongoing for months. But it is clear the threat from intercontinental and short-range missiles is of great concern for both homeland security and U.S. military operations around the world.
“I would argue that the nation’s missile-warning system is critical now, or perhaps even more so, than it was even during the Cold War,” Col. Jim Planeaux, director of the Air Force’s Infrared Space Systems Directorate, said during a media teleconference last week.
“Certainly strategic and tactical missile threats have proliferated in both number and type, and the number of countries that own these systems has increased.”
Planeaux said the new satellites would enable the U.S. to deal with evolving threats.
“We’re modernizing the nation’s systems so that we remain highly capable against today’s threats,” he said. “And we’ll continue to meet the needs of our national leadership, decision-makers, our war-fighters and our allies.”
Mounted atop the 189-foot-tall United Launch Alliance rocket, the second in a series of Space Based Infrared System spacecraft blasted off at 5:21 p.m. Tuesday at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The advanced early-warning satellites use powerful telescopes and infrared sensors to detect high-temperature exhaust from missile launches.
Known by the acronym SBIRS, the spacecraft determine the trajectories of enemy missiles in flight and then predict where they will hit. The early alert gives U.S. military commanders time to launch interceptors — U.S. missiles designed to track down and destroy the enemy boosters before they can threaten troops.
Recent North Korean provocations prompted Hagel to increase to 44 from 30 the number of interceptors in Alaska and California by 2017.
“The United States has missile defense systems in place to protect us from limited ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) attacks, but North Korea in particular has recently made advances in its capabilities and has engaged in a series of irresponsible and reckless provocations,” Hagel said Friday.
Built by Lockheed Martin, the missile-warning satellites have scanning sensors that can provide sweeping coverage of wide swaths of Earth.
The new satellites also have sensors that can stare at specific targets for more directed coverage. They also can detect dimmer exhaust plumes from shorter-range missiles that threaten U.S. and allied troops engaged in military operations around the world.
The threat from missile attacks is increasing. Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told Congress last year that nearly 200 missile launches were detected in 2011.
“We’re seeing an increase in number of global missile launches,” Planeaux said.
In his congressional testimony, Shelton said, “Our ability to provide strategic missile warning is critical to the nation’s survival.”