Navy strives to save stranded MUOS-5 satellite

Satellite stuck in wrong orbit

The Navy's fifth Mobile User Objective System satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, before it was encapsulated in preparation for a June 24 launch by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. (Photo: United Launch Alliance)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The Navy and Lockheed Martin continue efforts to salvage a communications satellite that launched June 24 from Cape Canaveral and has been stranded in the wrong orbit, at least temporarily, by a propulsion system failure.

News 6 partner Florida Today reports that after the lift off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, the fifth Mobile User Objective System satellite, or MUOS-5, was supposed perform engine firings that would circularize an elliptical orbit and settle the spacecraft about 22,000 miles over the equator in early July.

But the satellite experienced "a failure of the orbit raising propulsion system" during an engine burn on June 29, halting that maneuver, the Navy said last week.

"The MUOS-5 satellite is currently stable, safe and under positive control," according to a statement from the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego, which described the satellite as flying in an "intermediate" orbit.

Satellite trackers have determined that orbit is one looping higher than its operational orbit and as low as about 10,000 miles. They have seen evidence of at least two small orbit adjustments.

The 15,000-pound satellite was to serve as a backup for a constellation of four other MUOS spacecraft that will offer improvements to the Navy's satellite communications network for mobile forces. The satellites are part of a $7.7 billion program that also includes ground stations and software development.

The problem recalls a 2010 propulsion failure on another military communications satellite built by Lockheed Martin. Engineers eventually figured out a way to use small thrusters to slowly lift the first Advanced Extremely High-Frequency satellite to its proper orbit over a period of months.

Teams are watching the MUOS-5 problem for any potential impact on at least two upcoming missions using a similar satellite platform. A national weather satellite called GOES-R is targeting launch in November, and a missile warning spacecraft are known by the acronym SBIRS just arrived at Cape Canaveral for a planned October launch.

"We take an anomaly on any of our spacecraft seriously and have stood up an engineering team dedicated to identifying any potential reach forward of the MUOS anomaly to other satellite programs," a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman said. "We are proceeding with SBIRS launch preparation and are working with the Air Force to ensure mission success on this critical launch."

SpaceX, ULA could vie for GPS launch

The Air Force has opened a competition for the launch of another Global Positioning System III satellite, hoping, this time, there will actually be a competition.

Last fall, United Launch Alliance declined to bid for a GPS mission, essentially handing SpaceX its first win of a national security space mission.

ULA said it looks forward to reviewing the request for proposals just released by the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.

"ULA wants to participate in all national security space missions for which we are eligible and competitive from a business standpoint," said spokeswoman Jessica Rye. "Each bid decision is made individually based on the opportunity and structure of the RFP."

Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, the commander of Space and Missile Systems Center, said the Air Force updated the contract solicitation based on lessons learned and industry feedback from the last round. The Air Force did not, however, change the "best-value" approach that will be used to select the winner.

Greaves said the solicitation added language emphasizing the importance of Air Force certification for any eligible rocket. He said concerns that ULA publicly cited as barriers in the last round, including uncertainty about the availability of Russian-made rocket engines flown on its Atlas V rocket and accounting requirements, "have now been resolved."

"The clear message to you is the Air Force remains laser focused on mission success and assured access to space while encouraging competition," said Greaves. "The GPS III-3 launch service competition is structured to meet these goals while providing the best value to the government."

Bids are due by Sept. 19.


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