Delicate rescue saves stranded $1.7B US satellite

Mar 17, 2012 By DAN ELLIOTT , Associated Press
This artist rendering provided by the U.S. Air Force, shows the AEHF-1 satellite in orbit above the earth. Air Force ground controllers executed a delicate rescue to save the $1.7 billion military communications satellite that was stranded in the wrong orbit and at risk of blowing up _ all possibly because a piece of cloth had been left in a critical fuel line during manufacture. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force)

Air Force ground controllers delicately rescued a $1.7 billion military communications satellite last year that had been stranded in the wrong orbit and at risk of blowing up - all possibly because a piece of cloth had been left in a critical fuel line during manufacture.

During the 14-month effort, the satellite had to battle gravity and dodge while controllers improvised ways to coax it more than 21,000 miles higher to its planned orbit.

"This was definitely a very sophisticated and highly technical masterpiece," said Col. Michael Lakos, chief of the Military Satellite Communications Division at Peterson Base, Colo.

The Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite is the first of six in a $14 billion system designed to give the military more communications capacity than its current Milstar system as well as resist signals jamming.

Losing AEHF-1 would have been a costly and embarrassing blow. It would have delayed the satellite system along with all the related technology that will use it, and it would have prolonged the military's dependence on the aging Milstar system, first launched in 1994. It also would have raised more questions in Congress about the military and aerospace industry's ability to manage multibillion-dollar projects.

The program was $250 million over budget and two years behind schedule when the first satellite, AEHF-1, lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in August 2010. As planned, an Atlas V rocket carried AEHF-1 to an elliptical "parking orbit" ranging from 140 miles to 31,000 miles from Earth.

Trouble came days later when ground controllers twice directed AEHF-1 to fire its main engine to begin moving into a circular orbit more than 22,000 miles above the Earth. Both times the satellite shut the engine down when it detected that it wasn't working - a safety feature.

AEHF-1 was useless in the parking orbit where it was stranded. Worse, there was a danger the fuel backed up in the lines might ignite and explode, the Air Force said.

The Air Force acknowledged a problem in the propulsion system shortly after the 2010 launch but didn't publicly discuss the danger the satellite was in until this year.

"My initial reaction was we had lost the mission," said Dave Madden, the civilian director of the Military Satellite Communications System Directorate at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.

Madden quickly assembled teams of "really big brains" from the Air Force and the - including satellite builder Lockheed Martin - to determine what went wrong. His experts said another attempt to fire the engine might trigger an explosion.

"Their findings probably saved the satellite," Madden said.

They devised a rescue plan using the satellite's two other propulsion systems. Both are weaker than the main engine and were designed to make course corrections, not push the satellite across 21,000 miles of space.

Over the next 14 months, ground crews fired the two propulsion systems hundreds of times. Each time, they had to check with Air Force teams that monitor satellite orbits to make sure AEHF-1 wasn't headed for a collision with a piece of space junk. They had to move the satellite out of the way of debris three or four times.

One of the backup propulsion systems required electricity, so the satellite's solar panels had to be extended earlier than planned. That put them at risk of damage as the satellite passed through radiation belts around the Earth. They survived without damage.

The satellite reached orbit in October, more than a year late, and successfully completed testing on Feb. 29, Lockheed Martin said. No other problems have cropped up, and the Air Force said it has enough fuel to complete its expected 14-year life.

Madden's experts identified the likely culprit for the engine malfunction as a blocked fuel line. A Government Accountability Office report issued last year said the blockage might have been a piece of cloth left there during manufacturing. The Air Force said it could have been put there in the first place to keep out impurities when the line was disconnected for a repair.

Defense analyst Marco Caceres, who tracks rocket and satellite failures as part of his work for the Teal group, an aerospace and defense analysis firm, said he had never heard of such a mistake.

"If I had to find the top 10 strange ones, that one would make my list," said Caceres.

Lockheed Martin, which is expected to build all six AEHF satellites, said the probable cause was a foreign object that got into the system during manufacture. The Air Force reduced Lockheed Martin's potential fees by $15 million because of the mistake. Lockheed Martin's current contract for AEHF is valued at $7.8 billion.

The Air Force said the next two AEHF satellites have been inspected and additional checks have been added to the manufacturing process for the remaining versions. Lockheed Martin and the Air Force say the next is scheduled for launch on April 27.

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210
2.8 / 5 (11) Mar 17, 2012
HOLY overlapping redundancy, stupendously precise feedback sensitivity, mega-sized-king-kong balls, and staggering good luck, Batman! Yes, Robin...the taxpayers can rest a little easier tonight, and...

word-to-ya-muthas
scidog
2.5 / 5 (2) Mar 18, 2012
i'm sure the person who left the junk in the tubes knows what they did and is happy to live in the USA where they don't shoot people for doing that.
the more i read about what the AF is up too,the mini shuttle gizmo for one,the more i see we are light years ahead of everyone,think about what we don't get news fluffs about----
SummGuy
1 / 5 (1) Mar 18, 2012
It doesn't matter that they saved this military satellite. US political leaders will still waste hundreds of billions of other dollars in foolhardy foreign military campaigns in the coming years.
Voleure
1.4 / 5 (7) Mar 18, 2012
Reading between the lines... the operational lifetime of the first satellite must be greatly reduced. They likely have depleted much of the fuel reserves planned for many years of attitude and course corrections by at least one of the two backups. I can see that getting the first one up and working, even for a shorter time, saves the entire program.
Yenaldlooshi
5 / 5 (2) Mar 18, 2012
Sounds like intentional sabotage or gross stupidity to me!

Having worked on aerospace propulsion systems in the late 60's, extreme care was taken when gas and fluid systems were involved. Chemical cleaning (My Job) and LOX certification were normal required procedures when dealing with fuel, oxidizer, hypergolic propellant, pneumatic, and hydraulic systems on spacecraft. The systems were then typically -20 dewpoint filtered high putity nitrogen flushed, and dried. Effluent purge gas was Millipore filtered to sub-micron levels, the system sealed and documented as to the required standard. The filters microscopic particle count was the determining factor in final certification of the system.

I would NEVER stuff a rag into a cleaned port! Most of the designs were set up to cap the systems under positive pressure until final assembly in a clean room. If it really was a rag, somebody needs to be re-trained back at the motorcycle mechanics institute!
Yenaldlooshi
1 / 5 (1) Mar 18, 2012
Sounds like intentional sabotage or gross stupidity to me!

Having worked on aerospace propulsion systems in the late 60's, extreme care was taken when gas and fluid systems were involved. Chemical cleaning (My Job) and LOX certification were normal required procedures when dealing with fuel, oxidizer, hypergolic propellant, pneumatic, and hydraulic systems on spacecraft. The systems were then typically -20 dewpoint filtered high purity nitrogen flushed, and dried. Effluent purge gas was Millipore filtered to sub-micron levels, the system was then sealed and documented as to the required LOX CLEAN standard. The effluent filters microscopic particle count was usually the determining factor in final certification and acceptance of the system.

I would NEVER stuff a rag into a cleaned port! Most of the designs were set up to cap the systems under positive pressure until final assembly in a clean room. If it really was a rag, somebody needs to be re-trained.
Estevan57
1.4 / 5 (17) Mar 22, 2012
"Lockheed Martin, which is expected to build all six AEHF satellites, said the probable cause was a foreign object that got into the system during manufacture. The Air Force reduced Lockheed Martin's potential fees by $15 million because of the mistake."

A very spendy rag indeed! Thousand dollars a thread.
210
1 / 5 (4) Mar 22, 2012
"
A very spendy rag indeed! Thousand dollars a thread.


"Spendy"? Estavanie?? Expensive too, I would say also...if you don't mind :-)
But, how do you know how many threads...unless...you....uh-oh...
Your honor, I would like to plead 'Not Guilty' by reason of Tim Horton's for my client Estevanie57 Sauce. ' He was in a hurry, ran out of the lab for just a short moment to refill his Tim Hortons Latte. Someone inadvertently closed up the spacecraft without his knowledge, or permission, resulting in a loss of $15 Million to his department and company." Defense immediately rests...

word-