By Scott Prater
The 50th Space Wing earned operational acceptance for four of its remote tracking station antennas from Air Force Space Command Jan. 29, signaling the start of full operations for the Air Force’s newest satellite communication assets.
The antennas carry an odd name: Remote tracking station Block Change, or RBC antennas, and they represent the latest telemetry, tracking and command technologies in the Air Force.
The RBC antennas work as part of the Air Force Satellite Control Network of ground stations located around the world. These ground stations are vital to space operations because they allow satellite flyers in the Air Force’s space operations squadrons to communicate with the satellites they command and control.
“Spacecraft owners must periodically perform telemetry, tracking and commanding supports,” said Brian Bayless, 22nd Space Operations Squadron AFSCN integration chief. “The AFSCN operations fall under 22 SOPS. The AFSCN provides access to more than 150 Department of Defense, national intelligence, civil and allied nation satellites. Now, we have four new technologically advanced systems to accomplish that mission.”
The effort to bring the RBC antennas fully online represents the first upgrade to remote tracking station antennas since Automated Remote Tracking Station 1 antennas were installed in 1987.
“We’ve earned operational acceptance for our RBCs at New Boston Air Force Station [call sign BOSS], Oakhanger, England [LION], Guam [GUAM] and Kaena Point, Hawaii [HULA],” Bayless said. “And, they are significant upgrades to our legacy ground system .”
The new antennas offer the AFSCN a non-keyhole environment. In other words, they can track an orbiting satellite during its entire pass over a tracking station.
“The legacy antennas moved up to 87.5 degrees, but then they have to be manually rotated to 92.5 degrees and reacquire the satellite before tracking the remainder of the pass,” Bayless said. “That’s just the way the old tracking mechanism worked. With the RBC antennas, we don’t lose track of the satellite as it passes over. So, the new antenna gives us an additional five degrees of telemetry.”
U.S. government contractors built and installed the RBC antennas at a cost of approximately $25 to $35 million at each site.
“These aren’t trivial upgrades,” Bayless said. “We’ve replaced the antennas and the hardware, software and control equipment needed to operate them, what’s known as the ‘core.’”
And these are just the latest AFSCN antennas to earn operational acceptance. The Air Force began installing RBC antennas at remote tracking sites back in 2004, when the first was constructed at Vandenberg Tracking Station [COOK].
“We’ve been turning over antennas sequentially at AFSCNs sites since then,” Bayless said.
Following installation, antennas are tested and operated for matter of time before AFSPC leaders deem them ready for operational acceptance.
“Operational acceptance is a basically a formal turnover of a weapon system to the command,” Bayless said. “Air Force leaders are saying, ‘you now have a top-rated system and it’s ready to move into full operational status.’”
In the RBC’s case, operational acceptance means the Air Force can take full advantage of a multitude of enhancements provided by the new antennas. They not only offer a better tracking range, they provide an 85 percent increase in redundancy and allow the AFSCN to perform in a more automated fashion.
“What RBC antennas allow us to do is automate satellite contacts,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Gibson, 22 SOPS commander. “The AFSCN can now ingest our network tasking order schedule, build satellite contacts from that schedule, run the contacts and de-configure without a human touching a keyboard.”
Bayless said the RBC antennas also should reduce the time tracking stations spend preparing for a satellite pass, by up to 50 percent.