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By 1st Lt. Dominic Vicino; Capt. Chris Jackson and 1st Lt. Ken Stewart, 20th Space Control Squadron
/ Published August 25, 2017
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – The Phased Array Space Surveillance Radar of the 20th Space Control Squadron, located at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., it is a south facing radar station that can track objects entering or leaving the atmosphere. It is one of the many tools used to ensure astronauts reach the International Space Station safely. (Courtesy photo)
Col. Devin Pepper, 21st Space Wing Operations group commander, visits with members from the 20th Space Control Squadron, Site C-6, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Aug. 11,2017. The 20th SPCS is made up of an integrated team of active duty military and civilians who carry out the mission of space surveillance. (courtesy photo)
Three new crew members lifted off mid-day on a six hour trip to the International Space Station, riding a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, July, 20, 2017.
The joint venture between the United States, Russia and Italy marks the 53rd manned trip to the ISS, otherwise known as Expedition 52-53. This is the first time four astronauts will work aboard the U.S. segment for scientific purposes.
While the most obvious aspect of manned spaceflight is spacelift, there are many factors that contribute to mission effectiveness.
The 20th Space Control Squadron, headquartered at Site C-6 on Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, champions its characterization, recognition and responsiveness to threats in the space domain through undergirding spacelift, the overall safety of our astronauts, and deconfliction of the ISS flight path through thousands of potential hazards 24/7. The 20th SPCS combines forces, known as force-packaging, with all of its ground-based sensors located around the world, to include both radar and optical “space weapon systems.”
What once was used as simple sensors to gather data for the purposes of space traffic control are now used for Space Battle Management. Space Battle Management applies to detecting both intentional and unintentional threats to friendly assets, of which, our astronauts being the most important.
The mission of 20th SPCS includes using its embedded intelligence section to maximize use of its space weapons systems to characterize, recognize and respond to threats in the space domain to achieve 21st Space Wing and United States Strategic Command commander’s intent. This is no easy task, but the Airmen of the 20th answer the call around the clock. Through cutting-edge mission planning, the 20th SPCS force-packages all its locations: Eglin Air Force Base Site C-6, White Sands Missile Range, Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, Maui Space Surveillance Complex, Redstone Arsenal and soon, U.S. Army Garrison Kwajalein Atoll.
The 20th SPCS identifies thousands of objects a day, and is able to detect an object the size of a softball 7,000 kilometers away and an object the size of a basketball 40,000 kilometers away. Once the Space Fence becomes operational, this new addition to the 20th will characterize threats in exponentially finer detail, with far greater accuracy than ever observed before.
For the purposes of Expedition 52-53, 20th SPCS tacticians tailored specific tactics, techniques and procedures for the specific protection of manned space flight and the ISS. This is much more challenging than it used to be given not only the congested nature, but the now-openly-acknowledged contested nature of the space domain.
The 20th SPCS has the unique capability to use its weapons systems purely for Space Situational Awareness and the 20th has the preponderance of Space Situational Awareness capability in the Department of Defense. No other squadron is better suited to do anything from safeguarding manned space flight to recognizing a hostile action in space by another nation.
For this Expedition, the tacticians of the 20th SPCS weaponeered a dynamic fence for every time the ISS passed through its radar's field of view. This ensured the right amount of attention was given to the astronauts’ safety, while taking away attention from less critical concerns.
Given the space station's period (how long it takes to orbit the Earth) of approximately 93 minutes, the 20th SPCS "sees" the ISS in its field of view anywhere from 5-10 times a day. For every time the ISS passes through its radar’s field of view, the integrated crew of civilian and military Airmen at the 20th SPCS optimize the squadron's sensors to best find, fix and track the target as it passes through space.
At the same time, 20th SPCS is able to recognize any concern surrounding the ISS as it passes by: potential debris, the astronauts on a spacewalk and even docking/un-docking of the Soyuz rocket. Using all of the data for Expedition 52-53, the 20th SPCS is the first sensor in the world to confirm the safety of the astronauts as they board the ISS. A remarkable feat for Airmen that are a part of the 21st SW.