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6th SOPS: Weather in 10 minutes or less, guaranteed

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The only thing faster than the weather satellites that the 6th Space Operations Squadron here supports is how quickly 6th SOPS' Airmen deliver weather information. 

The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program's constellation orbits approximately 525 miles above the earth--in contrast to Global Positioning System satellites at 12,000 miles or military communications satellites at 23,500 miles. This means each orbital cycle is less than two hours. 

The five-person satellite operations crew in 6th SOPS includes a crew commander, two flight commanders and two space systems operators. At any given time, they may be conducting as many as three simultaneous supports, said Tech. Sgt. Bill Hosey, 6th SOPS first sergeant. 

"Two simultaneous supports is typical; three starts to get hairy," Sergeant Hosey said. "In a three-hour period, we can do six supports with different satellites because of how fast the satellites are flying." 

Because of the low orbit, worldwide automated remote tracking stations have approximately 11 minutes of visibility with a satellite on each pass. DMSP operators here need about seven of those 11 minutes to download visual imagery data from the satellite's pass around Earth. 

Usually, data collection takes place parallel to other satellite support tasks; during anomalies, however, data recovery takes top priority. 

"If we don't get our other objectives accomplished on the satellite's first pass, we'll either add up a critical support or have to get it done on the next go-round," said 2nd Lt. Jeremy Cotton, 6th SOPS. 

When 6th SOPS operated from Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., one Airman assigned as a runner had only one job: get the weather data to the Air Force Weather Agency within 10 minutes after the satellite's signal faded. The data transfer is now electronic, but the requirement stands because DMSP-provided weather data is critical to military operations and because AFWA cannot "piece together" missing weather data. 

"DMSP is one of the most underrated space operations," Lieutenant Cotton said. "Satellite communications, ground communications, troop movements and aircraft tasking orders all rely on terrestrial and space weather. 

"Planes don't fly in bad weather, period," he continued. "You don't want to fly into a tornado or hailstorm." Also, weather determines which aircraft munitions can be loaded for a mission and the effectiveness of those weapons once they're loaded and used. 

During operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf kept a DMSP data-receiving system just outside his operations center and wouldn't let the system leave the theater until he left, Lieutenant Cotton said. Soil moisture content analysis helped determine tank and troop movement orders: high moisture could point out areas of mud or quicksand that would trap tanks and make it difficult to walk. 

In addition, weather was the key to timing for the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, in World War II. 

"Gen. (Dwight) Eisenhower said, 'We're going to do it this day because that's our only break in the weather,'" Lieutenant Cotton said. 

The satellites are one part of the "fast and accurate" equation--their normal operating capability is four years, but some satellites have been online for 10 to 12 years. Their primary piece of equipment is an operational line scan system that oscillates six times per second to capture video data on Earth's surface and atmosphere. Weather experts use data from a microwave imager sensor to determine soil moisture content. 

The other part of the equation is the crewmembers on the ground at 6th SOPS, who provide backup capability to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's satellite operations control center in Suitland, Md. 

Col. John Hyten, currently deployed to Southwest Asia as U.S. Central Command's director of space forces, and Col. Michael Carey, 90th Space Wing commander at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., both have a history with DMSP. 

"A lot of people try to get into 6th SOPS," Lieutenant Cotton said. "As I look back, I'm definitely lucky I got into this unit."

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