Weather in 10 minutes or less, guaranteed

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
  • 50th Space Wing Public Affairs
The only thing faster than the weather satellites that the Airmen of the 6th Space Operations Squadron support is the speed with which those 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.

Getting uninterrupted weather data from these satellites is a full-time job for the Department of Defense. That's where the 6th SOPS comes in. The Reserve unit plays a crucial total-force role in this mission as a backup for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's satellite operations control center in Suitland, Md.

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 weather 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 10-minute requirement stands because DMSP-provided weather data is critical to military operations and because AFWA cannot "piece together" missing weather data.

"Satellite communications, ground communications, troop movements and aircraft tasking orders all rely on terrestrial and space weather," said Lieutenant Cotton.
"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.

According to author David N. Spires, 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. Soil moisture content analysis helped determine tank and troop movement orders: high moisture could point out areas of mud or quicksand that might 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.

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 the Earth's surface and atmosphere. Weather experts use data from a microwave imager sensor to determine soil moisture content.