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From April 1999 Airman Magazine

Eyes to the Skies

“We track anything from the size of a bus down to a 10-centimeter bolt,” said Capt. Lee Ochoa, a space surveillance crew commander with the 1st Command and Control Squadron.

A bolt the size of a child’s crayon would be hard enough to spot if it were lying on the road while you’re cruising at 60 mph. Imagine tracking it as it cruises 600 miles above — at 17,000 miles per hour.

Ten-person crews work around the clock in the center’s darkened room of computer consoles, keeping tabs on satellites, rocket bodies, space stations and a spray of debris left floating from 40 years of space launches. In fact, only about 600 of the objects “up there” are active satellites. And the center begins a new entry in their catalog each time another rocket is launched.

“We identify the payload, find out what it’s doing and where it’s going,” said Army Maj. Robert Nieves, the center’s former deputy commander. “But we not only have to track the payload, we have to track the rocket body, the platform and all debris associated with the launch.”

Many of these objects stay in orbit for years before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. The oldest item being tracked is catalog No. 0005, a Navy Vanguard satellite launched on St. Patrick’s Day, 1958. A more recent piece is No. 25,610, part of the U.S. rocket that launched the Mars Polar Lander Jan. 3.

But the center’s involvement is more than just watching deep-space fly-bys. They also play orbital traffic cops.

While most satellites orbit in constant paths designed to stay out of each other’s way, manned spacecraft such as U.S. space shuttles are maneuverable and don’t always follow the same orbits. The center looks for potential intersections in the thousands of orbits on high, and can advise NASA via a direct hotline whenever something may get too close to a manned mission.

“Since we’ve been doing this, the shuttle has moved its orbit nine times as a result of our information,” Nieves said.

The center also advises satellite owners and users when events like solar flares or radio frequency endanger a satellite’s operations.

“We notify them of these events and what impact it will have on their satellites,” Nieves said. “We want to make sure all our customers can use their satellites.”

The center keeps tabs on all this space traffic with more than 80,000 observations a day. It’s the collection and dissemination point for a worldwide network of ground-based radars and optical sensors that provide the whereabouts of everything in orbit.

“We are the fusing point for so much information,” said Maj. Al Burke, deputy commander of the center. “We’re really involved with anything that goes on in space.”

Three-person teams from the 1st Command and Control Squadron form the Air Force Space Command component of the center’s crews, while the other seven people on duty from all branches of service and Canada are part of U.S. Space Command and Canadian forces.

The squadron manages the worldwide space surveillance network, collecting data and tasking various sites based on the need of the unified command. The network’s 13 radars are so sensitive they can track objects just 10 centimeters long up to 600 nautical miles away. Four optical sensors augment the radars, peering into deep space with electronic eyes that can see a soccer ball 23,000 miles away.

“Some objects, like the space shuttle, can maneuver, so they’re not always where we expect to see them,” Ochoa said. “If it’s not where one station was supposed to see it, we call the other stations and they can re-acquire it.”

The center’s operators spend hours checking specific orbits each day — a task that is straining on both the eyes and mind.

“Some satellites are very tricky,” said Airman 1st Class Guy Gordon, a 1st CACS space surveillance systems controller. “And when you’re working a manned shuttle or Mir mission, one little mistake can endanger those lives.”

Another of their more challenging tasks is re-entry assessment — predicting when and where an object will come to Earth when its orbit decays. Although less than 5 percent of an object will survive its fiery flight through the atmosphere, the center’s operators make careful calculations to determine its re-entry path.

“It’s more of an art than a science,” Nieves explained. “Our atmosphere has peaks and valleys, just like the ripples of a lake, so objects will skip and skim along its surface before they actually re-enter.”

Still, the predictions are nearly 96 percent accurate within a 30-minute window.

That skill may border between science and art, but one thing the Space Control Center doesn’t dabble in is science fiction.

“We don’t track UFOs or asteroids,” Nieves said.

But if it’s man-made science floating in space, they know where to aim their eyes.

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