The U.S. Air Force says it will continue operating the ORS-1 imaging satellite as long as ground commanders want its imagery, a strategy that could effectively separate the program from an anticipated debate in 2012 over whether to continue funding the broader Operationally Responsive Space program.
The service also acknowledges, however, that there is no planned successor for the spacecraft.
The Air Force declared ORS-1 operational in January after months of on-orbit tests of its camera by forces in the field. The ORS-1 camera is a larger version of the cameras installed on U-2 aircraft and flown over Afghanistan and other hotspots.
The spacecraft was launched last June and received “early combatant command acceptance” in September, the Air Force said.
“The 1st and 7th Space Operations squadrons at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado will continue to operate ORS-1to support CENTCOM needs until it is deemed no longer needed or is no longer capable,” said Air Force spokeswoman Auburn Davis in a written response to a question about whether the fate of ORS-1 is tied to the broader ORS program.
Goodrich, the ORS-1 prime contractor, built a larger telescope version of the U-2’s Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System 2 camera. The camera was installed on a satellite frame provided by ATK.
ORS-1 was the first satellite designed and built entirely under the Operationally Responsive Space program.
Under ORS, the military would keep hardware and processes in place to rapidly launch satellites and sensors. The intelligence collections by those sensors would be controlled by forces in the field instead of by agencies back in the U.S.
The ORS program has become controversial; some critics questioned the financial feasibility of storing satellite components and sensors just in case they are needed.
Perhaps tellingly, the Air Force issued a combined “initial/final” operational declaration for the satellite.
“Because ORS-1 was produced in response to a USCENTCOM Urgent Need and no follow-on capability is planned, [initial operational capability] and [final operational capability] declaration were combined,” the Davis said.