Minutes pass like hours as a ski-equipped C-130 sits on a makeshift snow runway while supplies are unloaded at a remote outpost in Antarctica. The crew keeps the engines running for fear they won’t restart in the frigid environment. The flight engineer eyes the clock as the time-on-ground limit nears in order to avoid the very real possibility of the aircraft’s fuel freezing. The plane slides down the tiny snow-strip and is airborne with seconds to spare. The weather brief before the mission, facilitated by polar orbiting satellites, which collect 24-hour weather imagery, provided the critical information needed to ensure mission success.
This is just one of the thousand successful operations that happen on land, air and sea everyday thanks to the Air Force Satellite Control Network and their unique mission of providing access to more than 175 satellites.
“We have 18 antennas around the world, 16 active at this time and kind of like AT&T, we are a service provider for our 29 satellite operations centers as a conduit to get through to their satellites,” said Lt. Col. Terrill McCall, then 22nd Space Operations Squadron commander. “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites that are in space providing weather data for our warfighters around the world, being able to forecast the opportunity for movements of forces and the operations around the world, would be one example of support that we provide.”
Master Sgt. Corey Spitler, Detachment 1, 23rd SOPS superintendent, says AFSCN functions much like a soccer squad. Players don’t just kick the ball from goal to goal. Instead, they make multiple passes down the field. Data flows from the user to the satellite, through the AFSCN, in much the same way. The unique thing is that it also works both ways; data can be transmitted back to the user as well. Eight satellite tracking stations, located in Hawaii, England, Guam, Diego Garcia, Greenland and three in the continental U.S., provide telemetry, tracking and commanding communications with the space vehicles during this intricate soccer match.
Greenland’s Thule Air Base tracking station is the only one with access to polar orbiting satellites on a regular basis, making it vital for weather operations.
“The importance of the weather satellites, as you can see stateside, would be the hurricanes,” said Spitler. “It’s for predictability and accurate prediction, so we can get accurate, near real-time data to users around the world.”
While Thule is the primary location for accessing polar orbiting satellites, the AFSCN is prepared for any scenario — even unforeseen events when the stations are unable to contact their space vehicles.
“The sun never sets on the AFSCN,” Spitler said. “It is definitely a team effort. When one [station] is going through maintenance or one is wanting to offload, for whatever reason, we work hand-in-hand with schedulers to make sure the mission is no fail. If one station is unable to pick up something, another station can pick that up.”
The ability of the satellite control network to sustain operations around the clock, all year long, is something not lost on crews who rely on those services to accomplish their mission — especially when that mission is delivering life-sustaining fuel and supplies to frigid Arctic and Antarctic outposts.
“Most of the time we’re giving gas to a camp and we need to know what the weather will be at take off time in order to gauge when we need to get out of there — the weather capability portion of it is imperative,” said Capt. Zach McCreary, a C-130 pilot with the 109th Airlift Wing at Stratton Air National Guard Base in New York. “The communication piece of it is the other piece that we rely on, on a daily basis. In a C-130 we don’t have all the Gucci equipment that most of the other airframes do, so we rely on text capabilities. We rely on HF radios and, when need be, we even use phone patches, which is a ground based station which we can call via satellite phone and they can relay us to whichever base or whomever we need to talk to.”
Weather and communications can have a major impact on the outcome of any operation. With technology improving the warfighting capability of potential adversaries, the U.S. military knows the importance of maintaining superiority in the realms of space and cyberspace.
“You look at an example of not having space, not having cyber and that’s a bad day in the Air Force,” said McCall. “There are many nations that are out there working feverishly to try to get to the point where they can get the high ground, as we often refer to it … so for us to be able to go after and to continue to advance that capability is absolutely a high priority across the board for DoD and national security.”