by Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
9/8/2015 - MAUI, Hawaii -- Thousands
of feet above the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and a couple of thousand
more beyond the cloud layer, high atop a dormant volcano sits the Maui
Space Surveillance System, home of Detachment 3 of the 21st Operations
Group, a geographically separated unit belonging to the 21st Space Wing.
The detachment is one of three Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space
Surveillance sites operated by the wing. The others are on Diego Garcia,
an island in the Indian Ocean, and White Sands Missile Range in
Socorro, New Mexico. Located on the 10,023 foot summit of Haleakala,
perched on the volcanic crater's rim, the site is ideal for keeping an
eye on what's happening in space.
Capt. Robert Copley, commander of Det. 3, said there are a number of
reasons to locate the three one-meter telescopes his 15-person team
controls at this specific point on the island. One reason is the lack of
light and environmental pollution on the island and on the mountain,
which is in the midst of a national park beginning at around 6,500 feet
"It's one of the only Air Force installations operated completely inside a national park," Copley said.
Because of the unique site it may not always seem like working at a
military base. Along the 47-mile, two hour drive from his office at sea
level, he travels on well-maintained roads, negotiates 36 switchbacks,
passes by numerous park rangers and, of course, tourists- to the tune of
two million per year.
"There are a lot of people on the roads, especially at sunrise and sunset," Copley said.
The native Hawaiians treat elevated areas as sacred so any types of
work, building and changes taking place for the detachment or one of the
other tenant organizations like the University of Hawaii or the Air
Force Research Lab, must be reviewed by a council of spiritual leaders.
Typical safety briefings include instructions not to remove any rocks,
which is considered bad luck. It is not unusual for people who have
removed these items to actually send them back, claiming hard times
since taking them, Copley added.
Another practical reason the detachment and its telescopes occupy the
very high ground is to get a better view of space. The elevation
provides a clearer picture because much of the atmospheric obscura -
dust and particles that can degrade an image - is not found at such
height. An inversion layer starting around 7,000 feet keeps weather more
stable up higher most of the time.
This allows Det. 3 to track about 10,000 man-made objects including
debris, per night. With a roughly two degree field of view, coupled with
the locations and time differences between the three detachments, much
of the sky is covered allowing maximum coverage during each 24-hour
"The GEODSS sites are dispersed because of their wide area of coverage,"
Copley said. "We can look at a diversity of things and cover (the sky)
pretty much all of the time with the three sites. "
One of the perks of Copley's job is a very unique, pristine drive into work.
"I drive through four distinct climate zones during the ascent," he
explained. "It starts out passing lush sugar cane fields which turn into
a Mediterranean climate with fields of lavender and eucalyptus trees.
At 7,000 feet you a driving past pine trees and through puffy cumulous
clouds, often with very limited visibility. At about 8,500, you emerge
from the clouds into what can only be described as a Martian landscape.
It never gets old."
Copley may end his drive at the top of Haleakala, but his work for the
night will take him much higher. Watching space, tracking debris and
making sure the U.S. Air Force maintains space superiority keeps Det. 3