By Tech. Sgt. Jeramie Hill
Det 1, 23rd Space Operations Squadron
At one of the most remote locations on Earth, 700 miles inside the Arctic Circle, the northernmost satellite tracking station in the world relays vital communications back to the U.S. in support of national defense. Detachment 1, 23rd Space Operations Squadron, commonly referred to as Thule Tracking Station and carrying the call sign of “POGO,” is a geographically separated unit of the 50th Space Wing, located approximately 3.5 miles southeast of Thule Air Base, Greenland.
TTS has been supporting U.S. and allied satellite programs by performing telemetry, tracking and commanding operations for nearly 50 years. As one of eight tracking stations in the Air Force Satellite Control Network, TTS acts as a relay, passing satellite performance and mission data between polar orbiting satellites and agencies such as the Department of Defense, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Reconnaissance Office and NASA.
Satellites containing weather information from locations like the Middle East and Republic of Korea make up nearly half of TTS’s mission set. Intelligence data makes up another one-third of the mission. Navigation, Research and Development, and Warning data make up the remaining. These satellites range in altitude from 120 miles to 24,800 miles above the Earth’s surface.
TTS is the only satellite tracking station in the AFSCN to operate three satellite command and control antennas. As satellites come into range over TTS, commands and mission data are downloaded or uploaded through one of three satellite terminals on site. These terminals, referred to as Automatic Remote Tracking Stations, amplify, process, store and forward data. The forwarded data is retransmitted via a different satellite link to space operation centers located in the United States. After the data is formatted, the information can contain such critical information as weather conditions in Iraq or intelligence on location of suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.
Satellite control operations and maintenance at Thule are conducted by contractor personnel. The station currently has 22 contractors assigned, ensuring that operations run 24/7 every day of the year. There are only two Air Force personnel assigned to TTS, the detachment commander and a quality assurance evaluator. The QAE conducts monthly surveillances to ensure the contractors are fulfilling the terms of the contract. For the Air Force personnel, an assignment at Thule AB is a one-year unaccompanied remote tour.
TTS recently received the highest possible rating of ‘Meets Standards’ on a 14th Air Force Standardization and Evaluation Team inspection. The inspection focused on operational effectiveness, training, certification and crew force management programs. TTS has a near flawless mission success rate.
“TTS has earned an average score of 99.96 percent [mission success rate] over the three-year span of the current contract. These scores are phenomenal even before taking [into] consideration that TTS operators accomplish twice the workload of other AFSCN sites at over six thousand satellite supports each month,” said Maj. Brett Stevens, the SET chief in the inspection’s final report.
TTS has also played host to several high-level distinguished visitors. In the last five months the Air Force chief of staff, the new Air Force Space Command commander and the new 14th Air Force commander have visited the site. As Thule has an international presence, the site has also hosted various NATO dignitaries in the past year.
“It’s not easy to get to Thule, so it’s great to see our senior leaders care enough about the mission and the people up here to make that journey and spend their time with us,” said Maj. Thomas Stratton, detachment commander.