Spaceflight Insider

SBIRS GEO Flight-4 beams back first images

The SBIRS GEO-4 spacecraft prior to launch. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

The first images from the fourth of the United States Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) have been sent back to the ground in what has been dubbed “first light” – marking a milestone for the most-recently launched SBIRS spacecraft.

“First light was a tremendous milestone for SBIRS GEO Flight-4 and we are very pleased with the high quality and definition of the images we received back,” said Tom McCormick, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) systems mission area. “With the launch of this satellite, SBIRS can now provide global coverage, with better-than-specified sensor pointing accuracy and the ability to detect even more targets than anticipated.”

The SBIRS GEO-4 spacecraft prior to launch. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

The first images were sent back to Earth back in February of this year (2018), with the spacecraft’s sensors being activated for the first time during a shake down controllers undertook with the satellite. SBIRS GEO-4 was launched on January 19, 2018.

The SBIRS GEO satellites were constructed by Lockheed Martin and the system is designed to serve as an early warning system against the threat of missile launches. SBIRS GEO-4 began communicating with the United States Air Force’s 460th Space Wing command a little more than a half hour after leaving the launch pad.

Like its predecessors, SBIRS GEO 4 utilized its liquid apogee engine to place it into Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) at some 22,000 miles above Earth. From its vantage point high above our world, the spacecraft unfurled its solar arrays and extended its antennas as controllers on the ground began to verify that the satellite had reached its destination in good working order.

The SBIRS GEO-4 spacecraft prior to launch. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

SBIRS GEO-5 and GEO-6 are the next two spacecraft in the system being prepped for flight and are approximately halfway through their production cycle on the road to deployment. If everything goes as it is presently envisioned, these two spacecraft should be deployed sometime within the next decade. 

Based off of Lockheed Martin’s A2100M satellite bus, the spacecraft in the SBIRS series are equipped with scanning and staring infrared surveillance sensors.

The primary objective of these spacecraft is described by Lockheed Martin as follows: “…to detect missile launches, support ballistic missile defense, expand technical intelligence gathering and bolster situational awareness on the battlefield.”  

Valued at some $1.86 billion the contract to produce SBIRS GEO-5 and 6 was awarded back in 2014 to Lockheed Martin. Afterward, the Bethesda, MD-based aerospace firm offered the U.S. government a no-cost modification to the contract. In which, the company offered to transition over to its LM 2100 bus which, according to Lockheed Martin, should reduce the time and funds required to produce these satellites in the future.

The first three spacecraft that were launched earlier in the program to field this constellation, SBIRS GEO-1 through 3, were sent to orbit in 2011, 2013 and 2017 atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rockets from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. SBIRS GEO-4 had a slightly different ride to space, launching on AV-076 (according to a report that appeared on SpaceFlight 101), a 411 configuration of the highly-reliable Atlas V.





Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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