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News | Aug. 19, 2022

15 SPSS: The neighborhood watch of space

By Airman 1st Class Kaitlin Castillo Space Delta 1 Public Affairs

MAUI SPACE FORCE STATION, Hawaii – Sitting atop the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakala in Hawaii are telescopes capable of tracking deep space objects as small as a basketball more than 20,000 miles in space.

The 15th Space Surveillance Squadron, functioning under Space Delta 2, focuses on two primary missions areas to support warfighter needs: Space Domain Awareness operations as well as SDA research and development.

As a vital part of the Space Surveillance Network, the 15 SPSS’s ground-based electro-optical deep space surveillance sensors, also known as GEODSS, collects metric data, observations of satellite positions along its field of view, and photometric space object identification date such as visual magnitude measurements. Simply put, they enable the detection and tracking of very dim objects in deep space.

“With sensors being operated during the day and night all over the globe it is critical our unit is postured to support 24/7 operations,” said Maj. Andrew Layman, 15 SPSS operations officer. “This 24/7 posture requires not only our operators but a full team of maintenance, installation, cyber and security personnel to maintain and protect our sensors and facilities.”

By providing technology to deter aggression from adversaries and support decisive response if deterrence fails, the 15 SPSS directly supports the U.S. Space Command mission.  

“This unit has a world-class team of operators, engineers, physicists, software programmers, mathematicians, electricians, logisticians, defenders, program managers, and financial managers that support our observatory atop Haleakala and our other sensors around the world,” said Lt. Col. Phillip Wagenbach, 15 SPSS commander. “These sensors generate data that flows to the National Space Defense Center, the 18th and 19th Space Defense Squadrons, and other partners in support of the SDA mission.”

The 15 SPSS is comprised of a blended organizational structure with assigned personnel from Space Operations Command and the Air Force Research Lab. Although headquartered at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex in Hawaii, there are three GEODSS sites located around the world - White Sands Missile Range near Socorro, New Mexico; British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia; and Mount Haleakalā on the Island of Maui.

“We draw support from many other sites, locations and mission partners; mainly from our parent organizations SPOC's Space Delta 2 and Air Force Research Lab's Space Electro-Optics Division,” said Wagenbach. “We also receive installation support from Space Base Delta 1 and rely on the Army for support of our GEODSS Detachment on White Sands Missile Range and the U.S. Navy for our GEODSS Detachment on Diego Garcia.”

Each one of these sites operate three one-meter telescopes used separately and in conjunction with one another to track deep space objects, for a total of nine sensors within enterprise. Together, they produce more than 6,000 daily metric observations.

While the new U.S. Space Force squadron stood up earlier this year, the Department of Defense has been conducting research and operational missions on Mt. Haleakala since the early 1960s. The site has evolved into a world-class observatory supporting missions in space control, laser propagation, and other related fields. Uniquely positioned as both operator and experimenter, the 15 SPSS continues to serve as the command hub for cutting-edge SDA capabilities.

“I am humbled and honored to serve as the commander of this unit,” said Wagenbach. “The dedicated government and contractor personnel that are working to advance technology, operate and maintain our complex systems, and keep the site safe and secure are simply amazing to work with.”