Thursday, October 8, 2015         

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'Golf ball' floating radar to return to Oahu

By William Cole


The Sea-Based X-Band Radar, known informally as the giant floating golf ball, will be visible on the horizon Thursday as it pulls into Pearl Harbor for maintenance and crew training, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said.

The one-of-a-kind, $1 billion missile tracker is 240 feet wide and 390 feet long. It towers more than 280 feet from its keel to the top of the radar dome and displaces nearly 50,000 tons.

The phased array radar inside the inflatable dome tracks U.S. and foreign missile tests with 45,000 transmission and receiving elements, and is so powerful it could see a baseball in space 2,500 miles away, according to the agency.

Ford Island has become the SBX’s unofficial home port and Thursday’s arrival represents the 13th visit since 2006.

The SBX in early September also made an appearance off Oahu, but did not pull into port.

In August, the Missile Defense Agency wrapped up three months of work on the SBX, including thruster maintenance, in Seattle. Pearl Harbor was ruled out because the work required a minimum 50-foot water depth, and Pearl Harbor waters are too shallow.

The Missile Defense Agency previously selected Adak, Alaska, as the home port for the SBX, but the vessel only “loitered” in the vicinity of Adak, a remote region known for its challenging seas.

The agency subsequently decided the SBX operated best in a “nomadic” mode with periodic maintenance and replenishment stops at Pearl Harbor. The radar vessel spends about 300 days a year at sea.

The SBX is the principal sensor for ballistic missile defense while a rocket is in the midcourse of flight outside the Earth’s atmosphere, but can engage ballistic missile threats in all phases of flight, the missile agency said.

The radar has participated in multiple tests and the successful Feb. 21, 2008, shoot-down of a dying U.S. spy satellite, an undertaking code-named “Operation Burnt Frost.” In June 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the SBX — which was in Pearl Harbor at the time — to sea as North Korea prepared a space launch across the Pacific.

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