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SMDC’s Airborne Surveillance Testbed observes French rocket launch

On Oct. 21, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s, or SMDC’s, Airborne Surveillance Testbed, or AST, successfully supported the launch of an Ariane 5 rocket. The rocket was launched by the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales from Kourou, French Guiana. This was the third flight of the new Ariane 5 rocket built by Arianespace, which lifted a dummy satellite to a geosynchronous transfer orbit and deployed the European Space Agency’s atmospheric reentry demonstrator.

The proud owner of 62 successful data gathering missions, AST was asked by NASA to observe the reentry of the French rocket’s first stage. The AST aircraft operated from a staging area at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and had as its primary objective the characterization of the demise of the rocket’s first stage into the earth’s dense atmosphere at an altitude of approximately 70 kilometers.

AST collected valuable data that will be used to verify safety debris impact zone calculations. The French project manager for Ariane 503 Observation, as well as two NASA representatives were onboard the airplane during the mission and watched data collection in real time.

The AST system is a Boeing 767-200 aircraft, modified by the addition of an 86 foot long cupola (inverted canoe), which houses a large aperture, long wavelength infrared telescope. The main cabin contains the signal and data processors to translate infrared target energy into tracking data as the events occur. The system can provide the precise location and apparent temperature of more than 400 targets simultaneously. Operating at altitudes above 43,000 feet, the AST conducts long-range detection, tracking, discrimination, and infrared signature characterization of ballistic targets in all phases of their flight, from boost through reentry phases.

SMDC is managing the AST program for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

"The AST has supported missions at ranges around the world," said program manager Henry Holmes, "including Kwajalein Missile Range in the central Pacific, Pacific Missile Range in Hawaii, Eastern Test Range in Florida, White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Western Test Range in California, and launches from Wallops Island, Virginia, and the nation of Israel. The program continues to provide critical infrared target signature and tracking data, as well as a unique testbed capability for the ballistic missile and aerospace communities."

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