Science and Technology News

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Looking through desert skies


by Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer


10/7/2015 - PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Out in the New Mexico desert on the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range, about 15 minutes away from the Trinity site where the world's first nuclear device was exploded in July of 1945, lays another first.

Detachment 1, 21st Operations Group was the first operational location in the Ground-based Electro-optical Deep Space Surveillance System. The site's combination of three powerful telescopes, cameras and very fast computers locate, identify and track manmade objects orbiting deep space at altitudes of 3,000 - 22,000 miles.

The detachment uses 1 meter telescopes with a 2 degree field of view, which means they can optically cover a span of more than twice the distance between the Earth and moon at a distance of about 20,000 miles. For context, the circumference of Earth is 24,901 miles. Between Det. 1 and two other 21st Space Wing GEODSS sites located in Maui, Hawaii and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, allowing maximum coverage of the sky during a 24 hour period.

A degree of isolation is beneficial to the site carrying out its mission. Being on an Army base in a remote location - Socorro is the nearest town about 30 miles away - means the telescopes don't have to fight light pollution to get a clear look into space.

"The desert is good for the site. It has good weather and clear skies most of the time," said Capt. Daniel Coleman, Detachment 1 commander. He operates the facility with a group of about 12 contractors.

Clear sky, good weather, low light all go together to further the detachment's mission to provide Space Situational Awareness. Coleman said SSA is like a very large puzzle where ground based optical telescopes such as those at his detachment play a role along with space based assets and ground based radar. Each of these systems were designed differently and while some are better at collecting deep space objects and others are better for near earth, all contribute to the vital mission of SSA.

What makes for a good GEODSS site also makes for a good munitions test site. Det. 1 is only about 15 miles away from the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was tested July 16, 1945. The Trinity Site itself is a national historic landmark, but White Sands is still an active non-nuclear test range.

Although separate from the 21st OG, Det. 1 along with the other 21st SW units around the world work together to make the mission happen.

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