Science and Technology News

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Atop a volcano

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 in elevation.

"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 period.

"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 looking up.

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