July 24, 2006
MSX Satellite Celebrates a Decade in Space
By Paulette Campbell
Last month the Lab hosted Senate staffers and military and academic officials for a 10th anniversary celebration of the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) satellite—one of the largest and most versatile spacecraft APL has ever built.
MSX, built for the then Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and designed to gather data vital to the design of space- and ground-based missile defense systems, lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on April 24, 1996. It was the first demonstration in space of technology to characterize ballistic missile signatures during the "midcourse" flight phase between booster burnout and missile reentry, and to collect data on the backgrounds against which targets are seen.
Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) became the spacecraft's owner in October 2000, and MSX is currently the command's only space-based surveillance asset, providing full metric and space object identification coverage of the geosynchronous belt, regardless of weather, day/night or moonlight limitations. Program leaders credit MSX's continued operational success to close coordination and partnership between several organizations: AFSPC manages the program; APL maintains and operates the satellite bus; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory operates the Space-Based Visible Sensor, the only sensor in use aboard the craft.
The spacecraft spends its days 558 miles (900 kilometers) above Earth, scouting for Earth-orbiting objects. Program Manager Glen Baer's team at APL collects the data and sends it to MIT for object identification. Using information that predicts where known spacecraft are orbiting, MIT can identify what's out there and precisely where it is.
"MSX is a multi-million-dollar asset that completed its primary mission and is now being used by the Air Force to keep track of the man-made objects orbiting the Earth," says Baer.
"The development, launch and operation of MSX reflect the operational prototyping and partnership approach now being promoted as the best way to field new systems and reduce risk in research and development," said Duane Deal, APL's business area executive for National Security Space. "The amazing thing is that this approach was followed more than 10 years ago, by team members still active in space development. Under the guidance of Air Force Space Command, the MSX team has kept satellite operations a vital part of the command's space situational awareness mission, while also significantly contributing to the advancement of science. Few teams and satellites can proudly point to making critical contributions to meet both national security and scientific needs."
Representatives from AFSPC, APL and MIT, as well as staff members from the office of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), came to APL to celebrate MSX's success. A delegation from U.S. Strategic Command attended via videoconference.
"More than a celebration for a unique spacecraft, this is a tribute to those unique individuals who conceived, designed, built, launched and now operate this spacecraft," Deal says. "Now entering its second decade of service, MSX keeps going and going and going—[it is] truly the Energizer Bunny of spacecraft."