Five members of United States Strategic Command and its Joint Functional Component Command for Space were a part of a ground-breaking team awarded the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Administrator Award in October.
The team established a method to provide critical space situational awareness and collision avoidance warnings to the agency's European meteorological counterpart. This vital partnership protects weather satellites from potential costly damage due to collisions, giving nations around the world accurate and timely weather information.
Lt. Col. Guinevere Leeder, Maj. Duane Bird, Capt. Erin Dunagan, Capt. Amy Ianacone, and Ms. Jessica Tok, all of the United States Air Force, and Mr. Mark Mulholland of NOAA, were honored and presented with the Administrator's highest annual award.
"I am so proud of our people for their ground-breaking work in sharing emergency space situational awareness information to encourage the responsible use of space. The members of our team are highly trained professionals and when tasked with building this program from the ground up, they followed through with great success," said Maj. Gen. Susan Desjardins, Director of Policy and Plans, U.S. Strategic Command.
In 2009, the joint team from NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service and the members of United States Strategic Command began work to develop and implement policies and procedures to provide collision avoidance data to NOAA's European satellite partner using the website, www.space-track.org.
This website is the command's method for distributing space situational awareness information directly from JFCC SPACE's Joint Space Operations Center. Through www.space-track.org, a user can login and gain information about the United States satellite catalog and reentry predictions, among other information.
The Joint Space Operations Center also issues collision warning information directly to satellite owners and operators in emergency situations. If a warning message is received, an owner/operator has the ability to request more detailed information, called Conjunction Summary Messages, explained award recipient Capt. Erin Dunagan. With these messages, users can accurately assess the risk and decide whether or not to perform a satellite maneuver in order to avoid a costly collision.
United States Strategic Command is a global command charged with conducting space situational awareness operations to ensure the safety and viability of space assets, including detecting, tracking, and cataloging space debris. Members of the command's JFCC SPACE work around the clock, employing ground-based radars and optical sensors to track over 22,000 space objects, some as small as 10 centimeters in diameter. JFCC SPACE provides emergency warnings to all entities and has Space Situational Awareness agreements with 28 commercial companies to share advanced information and protect space assets. Space debris has become a great concern to the international community operating spacecraft in the earth's orbit. According to NASA's Orbital Debris program office, there has been a 40% increase in the number of collision warnings since 2006. Much of this debris is found at altitudes where a majority of spacecraft operate.
"The command recognizes the importance of the vital partnership between NOAA and its meteorological partners, and due to that recognition, our experts provide critical space collision support. Through USSTRATCOM's space situational awareness mission, we analyze potential close approaches for approximately 1,100 active satellites. Together, we are able to minimize risk to vital satellites, which ultimately assists NOAA in delivering up-to-date weather information to countless users," Desjardins said.
Since the establishment of the new data sharing policies and procedures, NOAA's partner receives an average of one collision warning message per week from the Joint Space Operations Center for its geostationary and polar-orbiting weather satellites. The agencies work closely together from initial warning until the time of the debris' closest approach. In April, the organization was able to maneuver a satellite and avoid a major collision based on warnings received.