PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Having an area of responsibility that includes deep space is a formidable job, but one that Space Delta 2 is prepared to carry out.
Space Delta 2, activated July 24, 2020, and part of the newly developed U.S. Space Force, has the significant task of providing space domain awareness by monitoring all manmade objects orbiting the Earth. SDA ranges from low Earth orbit, to geosynchronous orbits 22,500 miles out, and beyond. Within that realm lies thousands of objects hurtling around the globe at speeds up to 17,500 mph.
Space Delta 2 monitors and catalogs those objects to protect and defend U.S. and ally interests in, from and to space.
“Space domain awareness is foundational for everything we do in space,” said U.S. Space Force Lt. Col. Steve Sandusky, Space Delta 2 deputy commander. “Whether we’re talking navigation through GPS satellites, banking, environmental weather monitoring or for our nation’s defense and that of our allies.
“It’s foundational for the protection and defense of all those assets to be able to identify where they are, and to be able to characterize what they are and what their intentions are,” he said.
The concept of space domain awareness, simply put, is keeping tabs on what is in space, where it is, and where it is going.
“The easiest way to explain space domain awareness is that we need to know and understand what is in our area of responsibility,” said U.S. Space Force Master Sgt. Tim Tichawa, 21st Operations Support Squadron superintendent. “Our main customer being United States Space Command, our mission is to know where every object is from 100 kilometers above the surface of the Earth where space begins, all the way out to deep space.”
The delta does this with input from a host of sensors around the globe. Its primary sensors include a mammoth deep-space radar operated by the 20th Space Control Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, as well as a radar in Australia and the space fence in the Marshall Islands. Optical sites in New Mexico, Hawaii, Australia and the Indian Ocean complement the delta’s global SDA mission.
“We continue to partner with Space Delta 4 [at Buckley AFB, Colorado], because all of those missile warning sites continue to provide critical SDA data,” Tichawa said. “That data is in addition to continued partnerships with civilian and foreign partners as well, all providing critical SDA data.”
Data from all of the sensors is fed to the 18th Space Control Squadron, another Space Delta 2 unit located at Vandenberg AFB, California, which tasks the sensors and maintains the space catalog to preserve space flight safety.
“It’s a global mission and it goes without saying that we can’t do any of this without the Guardians, Airmen, Soldiers, Marines, Sailors… all those folks that are contributing to this,” Sandusky said.
The Delta also has a presence in Suitland, Maryland, partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to operate satellites providing in-theater weather monitoring for warfighters downrange. Space Delta 2 personnel are also at Huntsville, Alabama. They run the command and control of the Space Fence, which is located on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
“That is an incredibly sensitive radar that can reach out into deep space and track objects,” Sandusky said.
Space Delta 2 continues to remain in motion, as it stands up the 1st Space Surveillance Squadron – slated to activate this summer in Maui, Hawaii. It will be the first of its kind, and will be both a development and operations squadron.
“The 1st SPSS is a new partnership with [Air Force Research Laboratory] that is being stood up as a squadron that combines research and development to get new operational capabilities into the hands of the warfighter more rapidly,” Sandusky said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to ensure that we’re providing that space domain awareness to the combatant commanders.”
Another coming change within Space Delta 2 is the 18th SPCS Detachment 1 at Dahlgren, Virginia, which will stand up as its own squadron. The detachment will be tasked with commercial integration experimentation and testing, as well as conjunction assessment, making sure objects in space maintain the requisite amount of separation for space flight safety. These changes will relieve some of the pressure from the 18th SPCS and allow them to focus on the growing challenge of an exponential increase in global launches, putting large numbers of satellites into orbit.
Space Delta 2 has roots within the former 21st Operations Group, but with a more concentrated focus.
“There were a lot of missions under the 21st Operations Group including missile warning, missile defense, airfield operations and all the other things,” Sandusky said. “Now that we stood up Space Delta 2, we are laser-focused on space domain awareness for the defense of our nation, our allies and in fact all of humanity, ensuring that our national assets, our satellites, our capabilities and our allies’ capabilities are able to travel freely in, from and to space.”
The delta has a singular mission focus; the next echelon above it is Space Operations Command, a field command.
“We’re able to communicate quickly and efficiently with our field command and with United States Space Command to ensure that our warfighters have what they need,” Sandusky said.
The change has improved communications with its higher headquarters.
“The greatest thing is being able to call the SpOC staff, and you now have majors and master sergeants that are interfacing directly with the field command staff and getting stuff done,” Tichawa said. “It’s taken out levels of bureaucracy, it’s helping to alleviate confusion.”
Within the old operations group construct – a squadron working through a group working through a wing working through a numbered Air Force to a major command – some things would get lost in translation.
“Now, as part of a delta staff, I reach out to the units we support directly, and the only other people I talk directly with is the SpOC staff, so that has been amazing to be able to have that,” Tichawa said.
The delta comprises about 360 Guardians, Airmen, civilians and multinational partners; a relatively small organization that is making a very big impact around the globe. All told, Space Delta 2 sensors, combined with data from the other contributing sensors, make hundreds of millions of satellite observations annually, contributing to that vital space domain awareness mission. They aptly refer to themselves as sentinels, always watching the sky.
“The sentinels of Space Delta 2 are on watch 24/7, 365 days a year,” Sandusky said, “ensuring that our nation’s space capabilities, everything from the International Space Station to navigation to banking to national security and environmental monitoring, are able to operate seamlessly within the space domain.”