By Scott Prater
As the Air Force continues to introduce follow-on satellites to its space constellations, older legacy vehicles tend to lose a bit of their prestige. In many instances, the newer vehicles are light years ahead in technology. They hold more capability, are more robust and easier to operate. However, legacy versions continue to provide mission capability.
The Defense Satellite Communications System B6 satellite reaches its 10-year anniversary today. As the men and women of the 3rd Space Operations Squadron celebrate that milestone they also recognize the spacecraft’s outstanding service and continued effectiveness.
“DSCS B6’s 10 year anniversary represents an important milestone for current and former members of 3 SOPS,” said Lt. Col. Chadwick Igl, 3 SOPS commander. “I am very proud of the initiative and dedication of the entire DSCS team. Our mission partners from Lockheed Martin, Aerospace, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, the 53rd Signal Battalion, Defense Information Systems Agency, and the Regional SATCOM Support Center have enabled B6 to continually provide the warfighter with critical communication capability. This anniversary serves as a worthy tribute to the entire DSCS constellation’s contribution to our great nation.”
Launched in 2003, B6 is the newest DSCS III vehicle on orbit. Stationed in geosynchronus orbit above the East Coast, it provides U.S. military users worldwide with nuclear-hardened, anti-jam, high-data rate, long-haul communications.
Users include the defense communications system, the Army’s ground mobile forces, the Air Force’s airborne terminals, Navy ships at sea, the White House Communications Agency, the State Department and other users. U.S. Strategic Command has overall responsibility for the DSCS constellation.
Though B6 can be a considered an engineering marvel, it’s older than many of its operators. Originally, it was slated to be launched along with its sister, A3, aboard one of the space shuttles during the late 1980s, but plans for its launch were derailed by the Challenger disaster of 1986. Ultimately, it launched on Aug. 29, 2003, five months after A3.
It was the gold standard of wideband communication satellites until a follow-on vehicle known as Wideband Global SATCOM-1 launched in October 2007, but even as the Air Force transitions to the next generation WGS vehicles, DSCS satellites, including B6, continue to provide critical space effects to the warfighter. That fact is not lost on 3 SOPS operators and engineers, who have continued to innovate and enhance B6’s life and capability.
“We’ve done a lot to make the vehicle better in the past few years,” said Capt. Ashley Maher, 3 SOPS operations flight commander. “Our 3 SOPS engineering shop has made a huge effort to automate and improve command and control functions. We’ve also introduced updates to the vehicle’s software, which helps it operate more efficiently. It may be considered old, but it’s more capable than it’s ever been and it operates more efficiently as well.”
Since it’s the newest of the DSCS satellites, Air Force leaders plan to make good use of the vehicle for many more years to come. It is slated to be replaced on orbit by one of the Air Force’s newest WGS vehicles, which is currently in a testing phase, but B6 will continue to serve in a residual capacity.
“B6 will continue to stay online and provide effects depending on constellation optimization and USSTRACOM needs,” Maher said. “After 10 years on orbit, B6 is still extremely relevant and providing important and critical effects to the warfighter.”