Los Alamos launches nonproliferations satellite

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., Aug. 29, 1997 -- Los Alamos National Laboratory's FORTE satellite reached orbit today at 8:15 a.m. PDT and is working fine, based on initial "state of health" data received at Los Alamos' ground station at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

FORTE, the first satellite made of an all-composite structure, will test new ways of spotting secret nuclear weapons tests and teach scientists more about lightning and the ionosphere.

An L-1011 aircraft flying about 40,000 feet above Vandenberg Air Force Base in California dropped FORTE with its Air Force Pegasus-XL rocket, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. The rocket's three stages fired successfully to place the satellite into a polar orbit that ranges from 480 to 506 miles above Earth.

FORTE, which stands for Fast On-orbit Recording of Transient Events, is a lightweight satellite designed to test technology to monitor compliance with arms control treaties. FORTE's instruments will detect, record and analyze bursts of radio energy arising from near Earth's surface. A joint project of the Department of Energy's Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, the satellite also will gather data on the physics of lightning and the ionosphere.

"It was a textbook launch and the telemetry shows that FORTE is in great shape. There are nothing but happy faces around here," said project leader Steve Knox of Los Alamos' Nonproliferation and International Security Division.

FORTE's structure, made entirely of graphite-reinforced epoxy, weighs just 90 pounds, so more payload goes into orbit. The new process developed for building FORTE by Los Alamos and Composite Optics Inc. of San Diego allows the satellite to be snapped together like a model aircraft, an assembly method that is two-thirds faster and 60 percent less expensive than other methods.

The seven-foot-tall satellite, which weighs 470 pounds fully loaded, carries three decks with aluminum honeycomb cores and composite facing to support the onboard instruments.

FORTE includes a radio frequency sensor system with three broad-bandwidth receivers covering the range of 30-300 Megahertz. It receives radio frequency signals via a novel, 35-foot-long antenna that has two arrays set at right angles to each other to help researchers learn how the ionosphere affects the propagation of radio frequency signals. The antenna, which is coiled up inside the satellite like a Slinky toy, will be unfurled after FORTE reaches orbit.

The satellite also carries a Sandia-designed wide-field optical imager that can locate lighting flashes and pinpoint global lightning distribution to a six-mile resolution. Such data will aid scientists studying global climate effects, where the lightning flash rate within a thunderstorm can be related to the precipitation rate. The associated radio frequency emission data can help explain the atmospheric breakdown mechanisms that lead to lightning discharges.

The third major instrument on FORTE is an event classifier, a set of adaptive processors that can distinguish lightning from man-made electromagnetic signals, a key to future nonproliferation satellites.

The improved detection technology on FORTE is the first step toward an autonomous radio frequency detection system that performs reliably in the electromagnetically noisy environment of near-Earth space. Known as the V-sensor, for Verification, the sensor is proposed to fly on a future mission of the Global Positioning System, or GPS.

A satellite ground station at Sandia in Albuquerque and an operations center at Los Alamos will combine to control the satellite and receive data from it.

FORTE is the second satellite built by Los Alamos. The first one, ALEXIS, was launched in 1993 and still operates, well past its one-year projected lifetime. ALEXIS carries X-ray telescopes and a radio signal detection experiment. The detection experiment, known as Blackbeard, provides a less sophisticated version of FORTE's ability to correlate lightning-induced radio frequency pulses with flashes of light.

FORTE information is online at

Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Last modified: Sat Aug 30 19:39:26 MDT 1997