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A Stranded Satellite and the World’s Most Expensive Rag

Written by on Monday, March 19th, 2012

Last week’s focus was all about space. We looked at satellites, the potential for space weapons, and techniques for controlling space junk. Just recently, a crisis took place 31,000 miles above the surface of the earth that proved just how important space technology is, and how crucial it is that we continue to develop our space program.

Lockheed Martin’s new Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellite (AEHF-1) was getting an error message. Twice, the AEHF-1′s main engines shut down, indicating that there was a safety risk. Air Force officials and the Lockheed Martin engineers collaborated to figure out what was going wrong with their state-of-the-art military satellite.

They determined, rather embarrassingly, that the error was occurring because somebody had left a rag inside of the satellite during construction — a mistake that could cause them to lose this $1.7 billion satellite.

The ground crew scrambled to fix the mistake by firing up the AEHF-1′s two backup propulsion systems. But, of course, Murphy’s Law made a bad situation worse. First, they would need to open up the satellite’s solar panels in order to power the engines, a feat that would risk damaging the panels as they passed through the Earth’s radiation belts. Then, they had to activate the backup engines in short bursts to get it back on course.

Remember all of that space junk? The satellite’s new path was littered with potentially deadly debris, and a collision with even the smallest of objects could utterly annihilate the AEHF-1. The ground crew had to alter the course of the satellite several times to avoid debris.

Against all odds, the ground crew managed to maneuver the satellite across 21,000 miles of space into its proper orbit. Had they failed, the military would have been forced to rely on the outdated, eighteen-year-old Milstar system.

The AEHF-1 will eventually be joined by five more satellites to complete an interconnected military communication system. Of course, everyone plans to make sure that history does not repeat itself. The Air Force subtracted a hefty $15 million from Lockheed Martin’s payment to penalize them for the error.

What can we take from all this? Space is not simple. We may have put a man on the moon back in 1969, but just because we achieved that feat decades ago, that doesn’t mean that we have mastered space technology. If the US intends to remain competitive for centuries to come, it is vital that we continue to develop space technology to ensure that our information, communication, and observation capabilities are as powerful as our competitors.

 

If you want advice about the world of military aviation, there’s no better people to turn to than men and women who have sat in the cockpit and flown some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With over 50 current and ex-warfighters on call, Strike Fighter Consulting Inc. can give you access to up-to-date, first-hand technical and tactical expertise.

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