DSP satellite now on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

  • Published
  • By Rob Bardua
  • National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
A structural test vehicle from the Defense Support Program, which helped provide the Air Force with early warning of ballistic missile launches or above ground nuclear detonations, was recently donated to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force by Northrop Grumman.

This 35-foot-long structural test vehicle, which is now on display in the museum's missile & space gallery, includes the infrared sensor Trailblazer component without the associated electronics. Structural test vehicles are full-sized units used to verify that all the components fit together correctly.

In response to the growing threat from nuclear armed Soviet and Chinese ballistic missiles in the 1960s, Air Force officials developed the DSP in secrecy to replace the space-based infrared Missile Defense Alarm System. A Titan IIIC rocket carried the first DSP satellite, built by TRW (now Northrop Grumman), into orbit Nov. 6, 1970. Weighing 2,000 pounds, it contained 2,000 infrared detectors that could identify the thermal radiation from rocket engine exhaust plumes of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

For nearly 40 years, DSP satellites underwent numerous advancements to improve their survivability and accuracy, and added the capability to identify nuclear explosions in support of test ban monitoring.

After the Cold War ended, DSP satellites detected Iraqi Scud missile launches during Operation Desert Storm, and scientists used their infrared sensors as part of an early warning system for natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and forest fires.

Air Force officials placed a total of 23 DSP satellites into orbit using a variety of launch platforms. The first satellites went atop Titan III and IV launch vehicles. The sixteenth satellite was carried into space aboard NASA's Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis in November 1991. The 23rd and final DSP satellite was launched in December 2007. It weighed almost 5,300 pounds and could accommodate 6,000 detectors.

For more information, contact the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at 937-255-3286.