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Thu, May 04, 2006

USAF Trackers Keep An Eye Out For 'Space Junk'

Orbital Debris Monitored By GEODSS

Roughly 15,000 miles above the Earth's surface, a communications satellite provides vital information to all branches of the US military. It is one of more than 9,000 items in space that are tracked by the Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance System, known as GEODSS.

There are three operational GEODSS sites that report to the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. They are Detachment 1 in Socorro, NM; Detachment 2 in Southwest Asia; and Detachment 3 in Maui, Hawaii.

Each site is responsible for tracking thousands of known man-made deep-space objects in orbit around the Earth at an altitude of 10,000 to 45,000 kilometers. These objects range from active payloads such as satellites to “space junk” such as debris from launch vehicles and satellite breakups.

"As various on-orbit satellites perform their military, civilian or scientific functions, we monitor the relative presence of every man-made deep-space object in earth orbit," said Bruce Bookout, GEODSS site manager with Northrop Grumman Technical Services.

"Those (who) utilize space to fight the (war on terrorism) need to ensure those assets are available and are under no threat," Mr. Bookout said. "We act as a passive police force, watching for natural or artificial interference."

Each GEODSS site transmits its orbital data to US Strategic Command's Joint Space Operations Center located at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado Springs, Colo. The center maintains a satellite catalog of every man-made object in Earth's orbit.

GEODSS performs its mission using a one-meter telescope equipped with highly sensitive digital camera technology, known as Deep STARE. Each detachment has three of these telescopes that can be used in conjunction with each other or separately. These telescopes are able to "see" objects 10,000 times dimmer than the human eye can detect.

The Deep STARE system is able to track multiple satellites in the field of view. As the satellites cross the sky, the telescopes take rapid electronic snapshots, showing up on the operator's console as tiny streaks. Computers then measure these streaks and use the data to figure the current position of a satellite in its orbit. Star images, which remain fixed, are used as references or calibration points for each of the three telescopes.

"Space is the ultimate high ground, giving us the ability to communicate over long distances and determine exact locations through the Global Positioning System," said Maj. Jay Fulmer, Det. 2 commander.

"Many of our (servicemembers) serving on the front lines use technology that is greatly enhanced through the use of space," Major Fulmer said. "(Our detachments, which are) part of a global space surveillance network, ensure the US and our allies have the ability to operate unencumbered in the medium of space, allowing our troops direct access to space-derived force enhancements."

Thinking "big" is what these guys do.

"As mankind continues to explore and exploit the realm of space there needs to be some accounting and understanding of the medium," Mr. Bookout said.

"Space is a new realm to the human experience. We've learned much during the last 50 years, but we still have much more to learn," Mr. Bookout said. "Space surveillance provides critical information on the location of every man-made object in space. (It ensures) our space-based assets are protected from potential on-orbit collisions or from adversaries who might try to take away our abilities to operate in space. This guarantees the warfighter access to space-derived tools they need to execute their mission."

(Aero-News salutes Master Sgt. Scott King, 40th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs)

FMI: www.af.mil

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