The 156-foot Atlas IIA rocket, pulsating with 490,000
pounds of thrust, came roaring off the pad at Florida's Cape Canaveral space
launch complex into the nighttime sky. It soared 155 miles into space, placing
a 7,066-pound Navy communications satellite-called the Ultra-High-Frequency
Follow-On (UFO) F-10-into geosynchronous orbit above the Indian Ocean.
The satellite was the 10th in a $1.9 billion series built for the Navy by the
Los-Angeles-based Hughes Space and Communications Company.
With this launch-which occurred in November 1999-the Navy now has 14 satellites
circling the earth, providing both the Navy and the Marine Corps with worldwide
communications at ultra-high and extremely-high frequencies. Another UFO, F-11,
with an estimated cost of $213 million, is scheduled to go up in 2003.
Control of these satellites has been transferred recently to the small and
relatively obscure Naval Space Command, based in the Tidewater countryside of
Dahlgren, Va., a former naval gun testing range south of Washington, D.C.
The Naval Space Command is the naval component of the U.S. Space Command, which
also includes the Air Force Space Command and the Army Space and Missile Defense
The transfer of eight UFO F-10s from the Air Force to the Navy, in 1999, marked
the single largest reassignment of satellites in U.S. military history, according
to the head of the Navy command, Rear Adm. Thomas E. Zelibor.
Also in 1999, the chief of naval operations transferred control of the Navy's
burgeoning commercial satellite communications programs from the Space and Naval
Warfare System Command (SPAWAR) to the Naval Space Command.
The Navy command, with 320 military and civilian personnel, is tiny, particularly
when compared to the Air Force's space unit, which has about 26,000 personnel,
Zelibor said. The reason for the difference in size: The Air Force command includes
two complete, numbered air forces and more than a dozen major air bases. Its
duties include managing the Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
system; providing weather forecasts, navigational data, and space-based communications
services, and launching all satellites and other payloads for the four military
services-including the Navy.
Broad Spectrum of Services
The Navy organization was founded in 1983, to provide the fleet and Marines
with a broad spectrum of space-based services, including communications, surveillance,
navigation and remote sensing. The Navy's ICBMs are managed by its submarine
The space command's budget "has been pretty constant" in recent years
at about $40 million, Zelibor said. "We're about 10 percent of the Navy's
overall budget for space."
Nevertheless, he said, the command has influenced the way that the Navy and
Marines think about warfare. "Space is about power projection," Zelibor
explained. "The Navy views space as a medium for the rapid-fire transmission
of information between commands, ships at sea, aircraft and forward-deployed
sailors and Marines."
Once in space, the satellites are considered, in many respects, remote controlled
spacecraft. As such, they are "flown," or controlled, by the command's
Naval Satellite Operations Center (NAVSOC), in Point Mugu, Calif. At NAVSOC,
technicians use a state-of-the-art mission-control system to maintain telemetry,
tracking and control of satellites around the clock.
The services provided by the satellites are coordinated and disseminated through
the command's Naval Space Operations Center (NAVSPOC), located at Dahlgren.
NAVSPOC is "a one-stop shop," which provides space-related operational
intelligence to deployed Navy and Marine forces through tactical communications
channels. At this center, operations teams, composed of officers, enlisted sailors
and civilians, monitor the status of military and commercial satellite communications
available to the two sea services. They stay in close touch with the battle
groups and amphibious ready groups, which enable the Navy and Marines to strike
hard and quickly almost anywhere on Earth.
The command maintains a "space watch" around the clock to track satellites
in orbit. A surveillance network of nine field stations, located across the
southern United States, produce a "fence" of electromagnetic energy
that can detect objects in orbit out to an effective range of 15,000 nautical
Data from Space
More than a million satellite detections, or observations, are collected each
month and transmitted to a computer center at Dahlgren, where the information
is used to update a database of spacecraft in orbit. When satellites of particular
interest are overheard, relevant information is passed on to alert fleet and
"The only computer that could handle that kind of workload is here at
Dahlgren," explained Cmdr. Mark Sanford, the command's Space Control Center
The command also keeps close track of space junk, Sanford noted.
Technicians have counted about 9,500 objects roughly the size of a basketball
in orbit, he said, and baseball-size objects may number up to 100,000 or more.
Small pieces of space junk burn up and disintegrate in the atmosphere as they
are pulled down by gravity, posing no danger to the Earth's surface, Sanford
said. But in orbit, he added, any uncontrolled object can threaten manmade space
"A fleck of paint the size of your thumbnail, hitting the windscreen of
a space shuttle at 17,000 miles per hour can cut a 3mm gouge," he explained.
"That's why they fly backwards in orbit."
Shuttle astronauts and satellite flight controllers can maneuver their spacecraft
to avoid space junk-if they know where it is.
Thus, Zelibor said, "we have to track and categorize every piece we can."
That includes worn-out and abandoned satellites. The design life of a satellite
typically is about five to seven years, Zelibor said. But they can last much
"We still have three fleet satellites that have been up there for 20 years,"
Zelibor marveled. When a satellite gives up the ghost-or has been replaced by
a more modern version-there are two ways to get rid of it, he explained.
A defunct satellite can be sent into "super-synchronous" orbit, by
using what little fuel it has left to propel it further away from Earth, where
it poses little threat. Or it can be "de-orbited," allowed to re-enter
Earth's atmosphere and burn up harmlessly before reach the surface.
The command is keeping close watch on the network of 66 low-earth orbiting satellites
previously run by Iridium LLC-the world's first global satellite phone and paging
company, until it went bankrupt and ceased operations in March. Plans are being
laid to de-orbit the satellites.
"We will be involved with de-orbiting those satellites," Zelibor
said. The Navy is watching to make sure they do no damage while still in space.
The Iridium satellites "are each about the size of a Volkswagen,"
Zelibor explained. "They won't make it back to Earth, but they have to
pass through a lot of space before re-entering the atmosphere."
The command also operates the Remote Earth Sensing Information Center (RESIC),
which provides remote-sensed multi-spectral imagery (MSI) to help naval and
Marine forces plan their operations.
MSI is digital data obtained by a sensor over two or more spectral bands. The
sensor measures reflected and emitted energy from objects on Earth and then
transmits collected data to ground stations around the globe.
RESIC processes data from sensors on board aircraft and satellites. RESIC uses
data from a mix of military and civilian satellites, such as those operated
by the U.S. Landsat program, France's Spot Image and the commercially operated
Space Imaging, based in Denver.
Space Imaging operates the Ikonos satellite, the world's first commercial,
high-resolution imaging satellite. Ikonos was launched from Vandenberg Air Force
Base last fall and immediately began transmitting high-resolution images to
clients. Navy officials have been following its performance with great interest.
"The Navy is excited about how we are going to integrate it into our intelligence
and operations planning," said Lt. Gary McKenna, at RESIC.
Using the data from the sensors, RESIC can provide a variety of custom-made
image products to meet the needs of naval and Marine forces, including:
- Image Graphics. These scenes of geographic areas can be true-color, false-color
or black and white and can be provided at the scale requested by the customer.
Ikonos, for example, can distinguish objects on the Earth's surface as small
as three feet square.
- Terrain Categorization. This color-coded image product can distinguish between
different types of land cover, such as urban, water, forest or bare ground.
- Helicopter Landing Zone. This product predicts the location and suitability
of sites for helicopter landing zones, based on land cover and slope.
Video Fly-Throughs. These animated, three-dimensional perspective views follow
a customer-specified path.
RESIC provides these products in a variety of formats, including prints as
large as three by four feet, transparencies, video cassettes and CD-ROM.
Over the past 12 years, RESIC has supplied more than 16,000 of such products.
They have been used in operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, Rwanda,
Liberia and Haiti.
"Marines love this stuff," said Sanford. "It makes it very easy
for them to develop their mission plans. Are the beaches shallow, good places
to land Marines? Is the terrain wet sand, dry forest, muddy marsh? Our data
will tell them."
To help naval and Marine units use space-related services, the command deploys
Naval Space Support Teams (NSST). These cadres provide a variety of products
and services, ranging with assistance with technical systems to pre-deployment
briefings tailored for specific areas of operations.
24 Hours' Notice
Team members can be deployed quickly. A couple of years ago, one lieutenant
commander-a woman-found herself hand-carrying imagery to Bahrain with 24 hours'
"We're a central 911 number for providing satellite communications services
to the operational forces," said Zelibor.
Also, as part of the U.S. Space Command, team members act as advocates for
naval requirements in space, help develop joint space doctrine and augment joint
space support teams during joint exercises and operations.
"I see the advocacy role as needing to grow," Zelibor said. "As
the Navy's needs for space-based services grow, those needs should be articulated."
The fleet and Marine units also need to know more about the availability of
space-based services, Zelibor said. He based this opinion on personal experience.
"The last time I was at sea, I was an air wing commander (aboard the USS
Dwight D. Eisenhower, on station near Bosnia)," said Zelibor, a veteran
combat fighter pilot. "All I cared about communications was that, when
I picked up a phone, it worked.
"Since I came here, I've gotten a real education about the reality of
space. I want people to know that we're available and that we have critical
services to offer."
Zelibor soon will be taking his knowledge of space technology back to the fleet.
He has just been named commander of Carrier Group Three, which is based in Bremerton,
Wash., and frequently deployed to the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf.