19th Space Defense Squadron talks astronomy, space surveillance with Naval Postgraduate School

  • Published
  • By Ms. Emily Peacock
  • Space Base Delta 1 Public Affairs

Since 1600 B.C., astronomers have turned to the stars to better understand the nature of celestial objects and the origins of the universe.

Commonly referred to as humanity’s first science, astronomy uses mathematics, physics and chemistry to study objects beyond the earth’s atmosphere; this age-old practice is still used today by the 19th Space Defense Squadron to expand the U.S. Space Force’s space surveillance beyond Earth’s geosynchronous equatorial orbit.

On August 4, 2023, Guardians from the 19th SDS virtually briefed students from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, on the squadron's use of astronomy to track objects in xGEO, the space domain beyond GEO, including cislunar space, or the area around the moon.

The need for space surveillance came after the Sputnik launch in 1957 when the U.S. realized it needed a means to track satellites in and around GEO. Additionally, defense officials believe that a rapid increase of commercial and civil exploration beyond earth’s orbit will create potential military threats.

However, despite the advancements in space surveillance capabilities, much of xGEO remained just out of reach.  

“Unobserved xGEO serves as an unseen safe haven for our adversaries to enter, reconfigure and maneuver, only to reenter GEO with little to no warning,” said Smith. “When we first discovered the threat of limited space surveillance, we struggled to come up with the right equations to close that gap.”

It wasn’t until 19th SDS was introduced to the Air Force Research Laboratory did Smith and his team begin to look at the problem differently.

“Our [space surveillance] systems were all earth-centric, and when we took observations and plugged them into our equations, our systems automatically assumed the object we were tracking was circling the earth rather than the moon.”

In collaboration with AFRL and teams from multiple research universities, Smith and 19th SDS used key figures of astronomy, such as declination, right ascension, and gravitational pull to calculate the location of objects as they orbited the moon.

“When you understand the environment and the different factors that influence it, you can turn that understanding into opportunity,” said Smith. “To share that opportunity with AFRL and now NPS, we’re opening the door to new solutions and war-fighting perspectives.”

While the Space Force and its partners have forged an initial capability, Smith and the 19th SDS are resorting to time-tested methods of astronomy to advance the USSF’s space surveillance and eliminate strategic surprise.

Located at the Naval Support Facility in Dahlgren, Virginia, the 19th SDS provides tasking to the Space Surveillance Network, a worldwide network of satellite-tracking radar sensors and optical telescopes. 19th SDS, alongside its sister unit, the 18th Space Defense Squadron, located at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, functions as hub for foundational space awareness and is responsible for maintaining custody of man-made objects in orbit, processing space events (launches, reentries, de-orbits, breakups, maneuvers, etc.), and predicting the likelihood of on-orbit collisions. 19th SDS is a geographically separated unit of Space Delta 2-Space Domain Awareness and Space Battle Management, headquartered at Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado.