By Capt. Charles Sandusky
Detachment 2 commander
BRITISH INDIAN OCEAN TERRITORIES — At every second of the day, there are more than 22,000 objects orbiting overhead in space. That number keeps growing, but this is one situation where more is not necessarily a good thing. The orbital lanes that contain satellites key to national security, the economy and communication networks are congested.
The nation’s reliance on these assets is at risk — somewhat akin to a bad day of rush hour traffic with a few errant drivers who refuse to follow the flow of traffic. This congestion increases with each object launched into orbit. As the traffic lanes become more chaotic — filled with debris that tumble chaotically and often intersect orbits of satellites or, even worse, manned space missions, space situational awareness becomes an urgent requirement.
Gen. William Shelton, Air Force Space Command commander, made this clear during his presentation on military space programs to the Senate Armed Services Committee May 2011. He stated “without the capability to receive, process, fuse and exploit the data we receive from SSA sources, we will not meet the challenges of an increasingly congested and contested space environment.”
This important task was reiterated during his recent visit to Detachment 2, Diego Garcia, one of the 21st Space Wing’s geographically separated units.
The mission of Det. 2, the southern hemisphere’s only Ground Based Electro Optical Deep Space Surveillance unit, is to provide the data required to maintain order in the congested orbits.
Located seven degrees south of the equator on the tiny island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, Det. 2 is perfectly positioned to view a key portion of one of the busiest and most important orbital lanes, the geosynchronous orbit. Satellites in this orbit rotate along with the earth at a range of 30,000 to 100,000 kilometers above its surface. This position is great for providing communications and monitoring weather.
Luckily, Det. 2 and its personnel are up to the job of providing the data needed to keep the orbital lanes running smoothly. They collect more than 3,900 observations daily and send that data directly to the Joint Space Operations Center in Vandenberg, Calif. — the traffic cops on the orbital highway. They’re able to use that information to build a space situational awareness picture that ensures collisions are avoided and traffic flows smoothly.
Now, as Det. 2 approaches its third decade in service, its mission is more important than ever, but its challenges have grown as well. Specifically, the growth in space capability hasn’t been confined to the United States. Many nations are keen on using the high ground to increase their national capabilities, and Det. 2 must maintain space situational awareness in that region in order to keep the picture clear for our nation and its allies.
To meet this challenge, innovative methods must be developed to maintain SSA.
Recently, Det. 2 did just that. Using real time information updates from a remote tracking station on Diego Garcia, they were able to acquire and track the Mars Science Laboratory on its initial launch trajectory. Det. 2 collected 1,432 observations as the laboratory passed overhead assuring a nominal launch and successful payload separation.
It took hard work and discipline, but the payoff for the nation is security in the ultimate high ground — space.