The second Space-Based Infrared System (Sbirs) satellite has achieved “first light,” and officials expect that it will be certified to warn commanders of ballistic missiles by year’s end, says Jeff Smith, vice president for the program for prime contractor Lockheed Martin. First light means the covers for the sensitive infrared payloads — a scanner and a starer — were removed. The system is now being calibrated.

The Sbirs satellite, the second to be placed in geosynchronous (GEO) orbit, was launched March 19 on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral.

GEO-1 was launched in May 2011. Its scanner has yet to be certified to deliver Integrated Tactical Warning/Attack Assessment (ITWAA) messages. These messages are used to tip off U.S. missile defenses about incoming targets. The Air Force has prioritized use of the scanning sensor first, leaving the newer staring sensor for certification later.

As a replacement for the Defense Support System (DSP), Sbirs will be responsible for providing information on targets — such as launch point, vector and impact point.

Its data will be fed into the Missile Defense Agency’s Command, Control Battle Management and Communications System, which links to sea- and ground-based interceptors in the field.

Because Sbirs GEO-1 was the first of a new breed of spacecraft, ITWAA certification has been a long journey. Officials will not provide details on what, specifically, has taken so long to check out, citing security concerns. But Smith says GEO-1’s scanner is in what is expected to be the final, 30-day trial period of some tweaks. “It is a rigid, structured process, and we are just checking every box,” he says.

GEO-2 is en route to its operational location. Once in place, the two GEOs in orbit will be able to provide “stereo” coverage of launches from the Middle East to the Pacific region.

Two scanning payloads are also continuing operations on separate, classified satellites in highly elliptical orbit.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin has begun work on GEO-3, and HEO-3 is slated for delivery within the next six weeks. The company has submitted a proposal to the Air Force for production of GEO satellites 5 and 6. A contract award is expected by the end of September, when the fiscal year ends.