Science and Technology News

Friday, February 28, 2014

Reserve weather satellite mission hits 15 year milestone

by Tech. Sgt. Stephen J. Collier
310th Space Wing Public Affairs

2/27/2014 - SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo -- This winter marked the 15th year of the Air Force Reserve's operational involvement in the Defense Metrologic Satellite Program.

In conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 6th Space Operations Squadron, the AF Reserve's sole operational space squadron, works together with both their non-Department of Defense counterpart and the 50th Operation Group's Detachment 1 to oversee the nation's weather satellite operations.

Known as a "hot backup" to the mission, the 6th SOPS has fulfilled its role as a supporting organization to NOAA since 1999. NOAA officials operate the weather satellite "constellation" that circles the planet in a low-earth orbit and travels at speeds as fast as Mach 25. While NOAA operates the mission in Suitland, Md., 6th SOPS Citizen Airmen stand by to take over the mission of monitoring telemetry data and downloading timely weather information from the satellites as they cross the earth's horizon, all the while communicating in tight windows from tracking station to tracking station globally with the satellites as they orbit overhead.

For the squadron's flight commander Maj. Jeremy Edwards, celebrating more than a decade of fulfilling the weather satellite mission "is definitely a milestone."

"Considering that 15 years ago, Reservists only played a small role in space, this is important for us," Edwards said. "Many of the early cadre of Reserve personnel came from 6th SOPS when it was an active duty unit, so the legacy and importance of the mission was inherited from day one."

The history of the squadron stretches back to its time as an active duty organization with the designation of the 4000th Support Group in February 1963 under the then-Strategic Air Command at Offutt AFB, Neb. Since then, the 6th SOPS has gone through several designations and reassignments, most notably under Air Force Space Command in 1983. It wouldn't be until 1992 when the 6th SOPS would come to life under its current designation.

"DMSP's history relates back to the Cold War, and although threats have changed, the fundamental reasons DMSP was launched have not," explained Edwards. "Equipment and personnel are all susceptible to weather and despite the vast technological advances since the first DMSP launch, the need for accurate, timely weather data continues to grow."

On the other side of the country, NOAA operators work hand-in-hand with their 6th SOPS counterparts to ensure weather satellite operations never miss a beat. In the event communication is lost with NOAA, 6th SOPS personnel must be ready to take over the mission at a moment's notice. Thus, the squadron's personnel and NOAA operators are in constant communication daily, ready to provide that support if needed.

Jim Mussmann, a NOAA senior aerospace engineering technician with the DMSP mission, said that working with the 6th SOPS, as with any relationship, communication is essential.

"We are always a quick phone call or e-mail away from each other," said Mussmann, who has been with NOAA for more than nine years. "With the nature of the beast that is the military, you never know who you might reach on the other line, but 6th SOPS has a strong tradition of maintaining a highly proficient operations standard."

Mussmann also knows the 6th SOPS mission very intimately. A former Air Force Reserve member himself, Mussmann served as a traditional reservist with the squadron from 2002 to 2008. He credits the opportunity to work for NOAA from his time with the 6th SOPS and its weather satellite mission.

"I have plenty of fond memories working with the 6th SOPS," Mussmann said. "The squadron has a long tradition of taking in good people and grooming them to become sharp operators. The world of satellite operations can sometimes seem sort of routine, but we must always be prepared for the worst. During times when we need to turn the mission over (to the military), the ability to trust your counterparts is critical. Whether that be a natural disaster, a physical security issue or a system failure, it is crucial to know that the people on the other end, 2,000 miles away, can seamlessly take over on the drop of the dime and pick-up right where you left off, without missing a beat. Once or twice a year, we get an opportunity to travel and physically work side by side with each other.

"It is those times when you can put a face with a name and a voice that really keep the relationship strong."

A relationship that undoubtedly will last at least another 15 years.

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