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Retiring satellite a cornerstone of space situational awareness

by Staff Sgt. Don Branum
50th Space Wing Public Affairs

5/29/2008 - SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. (AFPN) -- People in the 1st Space Operations Squadron will say goodbye June 2 to a satellite that has been a cornerstone of Air Force space situational awareness for more than 10 years.

The Midcourse Space Experiment, or MSX, satellite's role as a space-based platform for tracking objects in geosynchronous orbit was a stroke of luck for the Air Force and Air Force Space Command, as the satellite's original mission was to track intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from the Earth.

"With MSX, the Air Force had a tracking platform unaffected by weather and atmospheric conditions," said Lt. Col. Erik Eliasen, commander of the 1st SOPS here.

The squadron's specialists assumed command and control of MSX Dec. 4, 1998, and joined forces with those at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Labs and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., to keep MSX operating six years beyond its original design life. The Applied Physics Laboratory staff developed, tested and launched the satellite and provided technical advisers and system engineers, while MIT specialists planned sensor experiments and processed data from MSX's sensors.

Most of MSX's sensors required a supply of cryogen to keep its infrared detection instruments at a low temperature. However, the Space-Based Visible sensor, or SBV, did not require coolant and continued to prove useful information even after the other sensors became inoperative.

It's impossible to talk about MSX without also talking about space situational awareness, officials said.

The SBV sensor has been a critical component of Air Force space situational awareness, said Col. Shawn Barnes, chief of space situational awareness and command and control for Headquarters Air Force Space Command at Peterson AFB, Colo. And space situational awareness, or SSA, is increasingly important as space becomes a more contested environment.

"SSA is the capability to understand where satellites are in space, what those satellites are, who is using those satellite systems and what they're using them for," Colonel Barnes explained. "It's also understanding the natural (space) environment and the terrestrial environment as they affect the satellite systems and the capabilities that they provide.

SSA allows space systems operators to employ their weapons systems and provide their systems' capabilities to warfighters around the world, Colonel Barnes said.

"For example, if you want the force enhancement that GPS provides, you need to understand what the natural environment is doing that may corrupt or otherwise affect the GPS signal," he said. "You also need to know what other things are in space that you want to avoid running into, whether it's debris or other operational satellites. And of course, you need to know what sorts of things in space or in the terrestrial environment might be a hostile threat."

The SBV sensor is one of an array of sensors involved in building SSA. Three 21st Space Wing detachments in Socorro, N.M.; the British Indian Ocean Territory; and Maui, Hawaii, operate the Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance system. Missile warning units -- the 6th Space Warning Squadron at Cape Cod Air Force Station, Mass.; 7th SWS at Beale AFB, Calif.; and 12th SWS at Thule Air Base, Greenland -- also contribute to the SSA picture.

"But it's not just the Air Force -- it also includes the Army, which operates and manages the Reagan Missile Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll," Colonel Barnes said. "It also includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Labs ... and it includes foreign operations such as the radar facility at (Royal Air Force) Fylingdales and the Globus II radar station in Cape Vardo, Norway."

The information comes together at the 1st Space Control Center, located at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., as part of the Joint Space Operations Center. There, space professionals look at the information to understand where objects are in space and what they are.

"We combine that with information from the intelligence community to understand not just what those space objects are but what they're doing and who's using them," Colonel Barnes said. "And then we put that together with our understanding of the natural environment so that we know what sort of problems or challenges we may have operating in the environment of the day, which changes rapidly."

Although MSX will shut down June 2, its contributions to space situational awareness will live on in its successors. Technicians in the 1st SOPS will command the SBV's successor, the Space-Based Space Surveillance system, after its scheduled launch in early 2009.

"From SBV, we understand what sort of capabilities we need from a space surveillance platform," Colonel Barnes said. "That gives us a sense for SBSS' technical requirements."

For starters, SBSS will be more agile and will collect more data than SBV.

"We'll still look at the Geosynchronous Belt, but we'll also be able to look at middle-Earth orbit, which is where you find GPS," he said. "We'll also be able to look at objects that are in transfer orbits from low-Earth orbit into deep-space orbit. When we see that a satellite has moved or is no longer on its current element set, SBSS can help us find that satellite and track it so that we don't lose it and have to find it again."

SBSS will act as a complement to the GEODSS system, acting like the zoom on a camera for space objects of particular interest.

"GEODSS may note that we expected to see something at one point in the sky, and it's not there anymore," Colonel Barnes said, "or we may find something where we didn't expect it to be. We'd then use SBSS to better understand whether it's a satellite that maneuvered from Point A to Point B, whether it's a new object or if it's potentially an object breaking up. It will give us the ability to dwell on one object for longer periods of time."

SBSS will eventually evolve from a single satellite into a small constellation of three or four, Colonel Barnes said.

"The first launch is scheduled for the early part of 2009," he said. "In the end we will have a constellation, but a relatively small constellation."

MSX's June 2 shutdown will create a gap in space situational awareness until SBSS is launched and starts operations. Even with that gap, AFSPC will continue to improve its efforts to expand SSA with upgrades to the ground-based components of the Space Surveillance Network, Colonel Barnes said. The command also will continue to look at ways of improving SSA.

"We're beginning to find ways to bring in what I would call non-historic data sources, which could be operated by any of the services or other government agencies," he said. "For example, sea-based radar, which is a sensor that the Navy now operates, is one sensor we're looking at that could potentially contribute to future SSA."

Other sensors might include those currently under development by the Missile Defense Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the intelligence community and others.

As ground- and space-based systems evolve, and as space continues to evolve as a warfighting domain, space situational awareness will become ever more critical, Colonel Barnes said. SBSS and 1st SOPS will continue to be a part of the SSA mission.

"We're working very hard in the command to make sure we can provide SSA as necessary," Colonel Barnes said. "We're at a time when we recognize that space is likely to be a contested environment, and as such, the need for SSA is that much greater.

"If you look at our dependency on space, what others' dependencies are on space and their appreciation of our dependency on space, then it's not hard to see that they will try to deny us the advantage that we have today. SSA is foundational if we want to prevent them from taking away that advantage," he said.

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