Adieu to a Vigilant Friend

After having far exceeded its original design life, the Air Force expects to retire the Space Based Visible sensor later this year, USAF’s top space general said last week. “Our plan is that this year we will stop using it for operational purposes,” Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters last week at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando. Kehler said the visible-band optical sensor, which was the United States’ first on-orbit space-surveillance asset, “is to the point that it has significant technical issues and it is not going to get better.” SBV is part of the Midcourse Space Experiment satellite that the then-Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (now called the Missile Defense Agency) launched in 1996. The sensor was designed to demonstrate the technical feasibility and utility of an above-the-horizon surveillance capability from an on-orbit platform. It became fully operational in May 1998 as part of the Air Force’s space-surveillance network. Designed originally to operate for five years, the satellite has lasted more than twice as long, but is not expected to function much longer. “It is ill,” Kehler said. “It is not a well bird.” Replacing SBV’s on-orbit monitoring capabilities will be the Space Based Surveillance System, a sophisticated electro-optical sensing satellite expected to launch around 2009.