The telescopes of Detachment 1 of the 21st Space Wing, sits 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 to ensure the safety of U.S. and allied space assets. (U.S. Air Force Video // Tech Sgt David Salanitri)

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.

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Doors begin to open inside a telescope dome
The ground-based electro-optical deep-space surveillance telescope located at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, is capable of tracking nearly 20,000 objects in space to maintain the safety of U.S. and allied space assets and works in concert with Air Force telescopes located at Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, and Maui, Hawaii. The telescope belongs to Detachment 1, 20th Operations Group, which provides positional and photometric data on satellites and space objects orbiting the earth to the 18th Space Control Squadron and Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Photo // Tech. Sgt. David Salanitri

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.”

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A telescope complex sits below a starry night sky
Stars fill the sky above the ground-based electro-optical deep-space surveillance telescope located on White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, March 29, 2017. The telescopes of Detachment 1, 20th Operations Group are capable of tracking nearly 20,000 objects in space to maintain the safety of U.S. and allied space assets and work in concert with Air Force telescopes located at Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, and Maui, Hawaii.

Photo // Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman

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.

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A woman in uniform reaches up the side of a telescope
Maj. Erin Salinas, Detachment 1 commander, 20th Space Operations Group, sets the motion of a telescope at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, April 27, 2017. The telescope collects positional and photometric data on satellites and space objects orbiting the earth and forwards that data to the 18th Space Control Squadron and Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Photo // Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman

“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.”