Colorado Springs Military Newspaper Group

Peterson Space Observer

20th SPCS mission remains workhorse of space observation

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force.) The AN/FPS-85 Phased Array Radar is located at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.  The only one of its kind radar tracks approximately 18,000 near-Earth and deep-space, man-made objects as part of the space situational network.

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force.) The AN/FPS-85 Phased Array Radar is located at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The only one of its kind radar tracks approximately 18,000 near-Earth and deep-space, man-made objects as part of the space situational network.

By Thea Skinner

21st Space Wing Public Affairs

The 2009 year marks a special occasion for the one-of-a-kind Phased Array Radar’s long-standing operational history with the 20th Space Control Squadron, as it celebrates its 40-year anniversary.

The 20th SPCS, located at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is contributing to the support of the 21st Space Wing mission to conduct flawless space control operations through the most powerful sensor in the Department of Defense that tracks deepspace objects.

The mission of the 20th SPCS is to execute a space control mission by performing all-weather, day-night location and tracking of man-made objects, while supporting the Joint Functional Component Commander for Space, known as JFCC-SPACE and theater war fighters’ requirements through continuous surveillance of orbiting satellites. The mission is moving from what was a reactive role toward a proactive employment.

The Florida-based squadron is a geographically-separated unit of the 21st SW and is one of 16 units worldwide providing space situational awareness to U.S. Strategic Command’s space control mission area.

“The 20th SPCS with their Phased Array Radar weapon system is a critical component to our nation’s space surveillance network. They are a prolific producer of space situational awareness by providing over 15 million space object observations last year,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Evans, 21st Operations Group deputy commander.

The AN/FPS-85 Phased Array Radar is the only one of its kind and tracks approximately 18,000 near-Earth and deep-space, man-made objects as part of the space situational network.

Some changes in the mission application at the squadron began in 2007.  When the Chinese shot down their own satellite, challenging the unit to be more proactive. The satellite’s destruction caused an enormous debris field and drove the unit to make their operations more effective creating more of an emphasis on space situational awareness.

In order to effectively track objects, the 20th SPCS projects a beam of energy, known as a fence, in to space. As space objects pass through the fence, it allows the operators to track, collect data, and monitor the object. The 20th SPCS can employ different fence configurations to monitor any man-made object that comes in their field of view. The monitoring allows the 20th SPCS to gather many observations on any satellite passing through orbit and be able to track objects that were previously impossible to see. The unit can track an object the size of a golf ball with the near-earth sensors. They can also track an object the size of a basketball up to 22,000 nautical miles away — in high earth orbit which our “prime real estate” satellites travel.

The information is sent to the Joint Space Operations Center, located at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and the Space National Air and Space Intelligence Center, located at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

The squadron uses other unique systems and tools to assist in tracking satellites, such as an improved break-up display, also known as IBD, and a Satellite Tool Kit.

The Satellite Tool Kit creates a three-dimensional image of each individual satellite pass. The unit can insert orbital data into the tool kit to create the image and determine the best course of action to actively track an object.

The IBD notifies crew members of a possible satellite breakup, and increases the ability to track and monitor all pieces of debris. The IBD function is critical in protecting space assets in the event these pieces pose a threat to manned spaceflight or the International Space Station.  This visualization will provide space operators a tactical awareness that increases overall productivity, surveillance and safety.

IBD is tentatively scheduled for test phase completion in June.

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