With civilization in the rear view mirror, the long road leading to a relatively unknown compound appears to never end. The seemingly infinite landscape, nearly untouched by human hands, is all that fills the eye.
The setting sun and emergence of the night sky signals the beginning of a mission for a select group of Airmen.
Standing just shy of 4-feet tall, the telescopes, assigned to Detachment 1 of the 21st Space Wing, sit in the northwest corner of the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, detecting, tracking and cataloguing tens of thousands of objects in orbit within their area of coverage.
The only lights illuminating the sky are the stars and the Milky Way.
Throughout the night, Det. 1 collects positional and photometric data on satellites and space objects orbiting the earth and provides this information to the 18th Space Control Squadron and Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, said Maj. Erin Salinas, Det. 1 commander.
With everyday life and the Air Force mission becoming more dependent on satellites, identifying and tracking objects that could harm them has become a priority. These objects include everything from dead satellites and expended upper-stage rocket bodies, to debris the size of a softball, as well as the 1300 other active satellites with a range of roles, including GPS and communications.
“We have to know where things are in space in order to know what is going on around us,” Salinas said. “Our data helps maintain the advantages space is providing us, in not just our everyday life as civilians, but with our military capabilities as well.”
Located around the globe, the Air Force has three Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep-Space Surveillance sites. Working together, these telescopes provide situational awareness of items in space, ranging from 3,000-22,000 miles away. In addition to Det. 1, the two other sites are located in Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, and Maui, Hawaii.
The GEODSS sites perform their mission using three powerful, 1.2-meter telescopes, including low light level, electro-optical cameras and high speed computers. Because the sites use optical sensors, mission operations are limited to low-light pollution skies and the isolated high desert of central New Mexico provides an ideal location for Det. 1’s operations.
“New Mexico has a history of having a great environment to view the stars,” Salinas said. “Since we are a photometric telescope, meaning that we are a telescope looking at light coming off of objects, we definitely want to be somewhere where there is not a lot of light pollution, which helps us accurately detect objects in space.”
Space is a battlefield just like other domains, according to Salinas. With more countries operating in space every day, military leaders require the most current information on detected objects in order to make decisions that shape actions. As defense, space operators often have the ability to fly the satellites away from threats.
“It’s important for us to understand what is going on in this domain because you can’t make a great decision unless you know what is happening,” Salinas said. “We can detect if something changes, and we can ensure we protect our own satellites and those of our allies. We can adequately defend our satellites if necessary because our leaders will make decisions on adversarial movements in space.”