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Schriever Sentinel

Experimental satellite proves value during short operational life

Tactical Satellite-3 developed by Air Force Research Laboratory and launched in May 2009 transfered to operational status under the operational control of the 1st Space Operations Squadron in June 2010. Satellite control authority was transferred to the Space and Missle Systems Center in February 2012. The SMC has started end-of-life testing prior to disposing of the vehicle. (U.S. Air Force graphic)

By Scott Prater

Schriever Sentinel

Operators here handed control of Tactical Satellite-3 to Space and Missile Systems Center crews late in February, signaling the end of the 50th Space Wing’s involvement with the soon-to-be retired satellite.

The action means crews from the 1st and 7th Space Operations Squadrons have officially operated TacSat-3 for the last time.

Originally designed as an experimental research and development vehicle, TacSat-3 performed so well during its experimental phase Air Force leaders decided to render the spacecraft operational. TacSat-3 turned operational during the summer of 2010 and began providing real-time reconnaissance data from space to combatant commanders in the field.

“As intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance squadrons, it made sense that we (Team 8-Ball) would control the vehicle once it was deemed operational,” said Master Sgt. Herbert Mosier, 1 SOPS Multi Mission Space Operations Center, flight chief. “The great thing for us was that we were part of the team that helped develop training products and acquire the software that was needed to perform planning and operations. So we helped transition the satellite from its research and development phase to its operational phase.”

The vehicle’s bus was controlled by the Air Force’s Space Development and Test Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. Team 8-Ball crews here began operating its payload in June 2010, a hyperspectral imaging sensor capable of reading specific frequency signatures.

“Anything that has texture has its own hyperspectral frequency signature,” said Staff Sgt. Cabral Cruz, 1 SOPS mission plan cell, noncommissioned officer in charge. “Once our users can see an image from the satellite they can compare those signatures to known frequencies.”

Taskings for TacSat-3 came from the Joint Space Operations Center, a focal point for the intelligence community, meaning the satellite supported operations around the world — and not just combat operations.

According to Lt. Col. Mike Manor, 1 SOPs commander, the satellite assisted in recovery operations following the devastating Japanese earthquake and subsequent nuclear meltdown of 2011.

“This satellite did some amazing things during its relatively short life,” Manor said. “Its original life span was one year, but the fact that we were able to squeeze two additional years of mission operations out of it is phenomenal. The satellite demonstrated a high level of flexibility by supporting both combat operations and humanitarian missions worldwide and its extended life span was attributed to the outstanding abilities of its manufacturer as well as the operators who kept it flying.”

If its operational success wasn’t enough, TacSat-3 served an additional purpose by helping prepare Team 8-Ball for the arrival of Operationally Responsive Space-1, a satellite it began operating in 2011.

“TacSat-3 provided the initial education for Team 8-Ball as far as mission planning goes and significantly raised our proficiency with regards to collecting data on ISR targets,” Manor said. “What we learned directly applied to how we conduct mission operations on ORS-1 and gave us a huge head start when ORS-1 was launched.”

While ORS-1 has begun the first months of its mission, TacSat-3 has continued to lose altitude. The satellite will eventually fall from orbit and burn up in the earth’s atmosphere. Manor indicated months of preparation went into end-of-life planning for the space vehicle so as to not endanger the public during its ultimate deorbit.

Team 8-Ball is planning a retirement party for next week to say farewell.

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