By 2nd Lt. Linea Stuckey
20th Space Control Squadron
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The operators of 20th Space Control Squadron have a big job: carry out round-the-clock space surveillance operations with the world’s most powerful radar.
The squadron’s AN/FPS-85 radar helps the Air Force keep track of more than 22,000 orbiting satellites, which is a dizzying task.
The 20th SPCS, one of the 21st Space Wing’s many geographically separated units, is located on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The squadron’s mission is to execute space control operations to detect, track and identify space objects to dominate the high ground for America and its allies. The Mission Operations Center is the focal point for the squadron’s space situational awareness operations, radar maintenance, computer operations and physical plant maintenance operations. The MOC is manned by military and government civilians 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Located more than 1,400 miles from Peterson AFB, the squadron relies on its host unit, the 96th Air Base Wing, for security, fire protection and other support.
The radar was initially built in 1962, five years after Sputnik was launched. Four months prior to scheduled testing in 1965, the site burned to the ground in a fire caused by electrical equipment. The radar was quickly rebuilt and operations began in early 1969. The AN/FPS-85 radar is the most powerful radar in the world and is the only phased array radar capable of tracking satellites in deep space orbits. It tracks near-Earth objects the size of a baseball and deep space objects the size of a basketball. This means the radar is capable of tracking something about a foot across from more than 23,000 miles away and something a couple of inches across from 300 miles away.
Serving as a surveillance squadron and missile warning squadron in previous years, the 20th SPCS has been a space control squadron since 2003. It is one of 29 sensors that comprise the Space Surveillance Network for Air Force Space Command. While other radars have primary missions of missile warning, the 20th SPCS’s sole purpose is space surveillance. The radar collects more than 16 million observations of satellites per year, accounting for 30 percent of the space surveillance network’s total workload. The data is collected at U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The 20th SPCS reports administratively to the 21st Operations Group at Peterson AFB and operationally to the JSPOC. The data collected from the AN/FPS-85 is sent to the JSPOC’s space situational awareness operations cell, which maintains the data for all Earth-orbiting man-made objects.
By supporting JSPOC’s space situational awareness cell, the 20th SPCS’s tracking capabilities provide orbital information on enemy satellites and dangerous space debris. Using this information, friendly forces know what satellites are overhead and can optimize mission planning. The data collected on debris can be used to warn of potential on-orbit collisions with satellites or the International Space Station. By tracking large debris and decaying satellites, data can be sent to the JSPOC to predict where the objects will land if it survives re-entry. The radar is also well positioned to track domestic and foreign launches. Data collected on launches help the JSPOC maintain an up-to-date satellite catalog and overall space awareness.
Although the AN/FPS-85 radar was built a half a century ago, there is still no radar like it in the world. Its unique capabilities allow for tracking of objects that other radars and telescopes would not be able to see. With the Earth’s growing field of orbiting satellites and debris, the 20th SPCS’s mission is more crucial than ever. Advances in technology and computers let the users of the radar push its capabilities to its limits to explore innovative ways to dominate the high ground as the nation’s Space Situational Awareness Center of Excellence.