By Scott Prater
Members of the 3rd Space Operations Squadron, along with their counterparts from the 53rd Signal Battalion, waved a fond farewell to a trusted old friend Aug. 12.
Lt. Col. Kevin Mortensen, 3 SOPS commander and Lt. Col. Benjamin Jones, 53rd SB commander, took the honors, shutting down the final components of the satellite simply known as “B9,” with a couple of mouse clicks.
And with that, a Defense Satellite Communications System vehicle that served both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army for 18 years sent its last bit of vital information.
“A lot of world events happened under the footprint of this satellite,” said Lt. Col. Greg Karahalis, 3 SOPS operations officer. “It’s 18 years old and been in service on active duty longer than many of us. It’s a Soldier and an Airman and that’s how we like to talk about it. The events it has been through bare some recognition in terms of how it has performed and the contribution it’s made to extending the life of the DSCS constellation.”
Launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas II rocket July 19, 1993, DSCS B9 reached geosynchronous orbit on schedule and entered service following a two-month checkout.
While AF operations squadrons have controlled the space vehicle, its communications payload has been managed and operated by Army units. B9 served users as the West Pacific wideband satellite for most of its operational life.
According to Maj. Mike Reeder, 53 SB executive officer, B9 supported multiple missions, including the Diplomatic Telecommunications Service, the U.S. Navy’s Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System and the White House Communications Agency [presidential support]. It also supported U.S. military operations including Global Thunder and Terminal Fury and assisted in humanitarian efforts such as the tsunami relief of 2004.
Sattelite control authority for the entire DSCS constellation was transferred from the 5th Space Operations Squadron to 3 SOPS during 1996. Launched with a design life of 10 years, B9 easily blew through that envelope, serving for 13 years on orbit before telemetry data indicated that it was running low on fuel. Rather than give up and dispose of a fully functional satellite, the DSCS team refined and improved its fuel estimation capabilities and managed to squeeze an additional two and half years of life out of the spacecraft.
The DSCS team earned the 2006 Air Force Chief of Staff Team Excellence award for that specific effort on B9, but the old bird showed it wasn’t done just yet. During April 2008, B9 was placed in super synchronous orbit as a test asset.
“The best simulator on the ground is nowhere near as good as an actual satellite on orbit for realistic testing,” Karahalis said. “The DCSC team has used B9 as a test asset for more than three years and we’ve made every effort to take full advantage of the unique opportunity.”
As the spacecraft crept up in age, B9 was used in more than 15 end-of-life tests, which provided valuable information applicable to the entire DSCS constellation.
The spacecraft aided 3 SOPS during anomaly investigations by allowing engineers to recreate abnormal conditions and helped extend the life of the constellation by enabling engineers to validate contingency procedures and mitigation strategies prior to implementation on operational vehicles.
“It has also provided a platform for running experimental procedures,” Karahalis said. “This helps us push the operational envelope of the constellation and maximize spacecraft utility.”
Capt. Kyle Volpe, 3 SOPS’ DSCS III engineering section chief, explained that B9’s deactivation process was spread out during a two day period as crews first purged the vehicle of any remaining fuel and then began shutting off the payload and subsystem components on the subsequent day.
Even then, B9 refused to go quietly. Following a command to shutdown its reaction wheels, the satellite responded by deactivating only two of the four on board. It succumbed after the command was sent a second time, however, and few minutes later 3 SOPS and 53 SB members said their final farewells.
“DSCS B9’s amazing mission accomplishment can be traced to the tremendous community that has supported it during the past 18 years,” Mortensen said. “From Air Force and Army operators flying the satellite and payload, respectively, to our joint, acquisition, and industry partners working in close collaborations to ensure we provide National Command Authorities, combatant commanders, joint and allied forces, and other users around the world with reliable wideband satellite communications.”