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News | May 17, 2023

First USSF SDA site in Chile strengthens space security

By Connie Dillon

The collaborative efforts between the Chilean Air Force, U.S. Southern Command, and U.S. Space Command to advance combined space domain awareness, came to fruition when the half-meter class telescope, typically referred to as a “Raven-class” telescope, was implemented on Cerro Moreno Air Base in Antofagasta, Chile, on March 27, 2023. 

The 15th Space Surveillance Squadron, a unit under Space Delta 2 - Space Domain Awareness, and the Space Systems Command’s Space Domain Awareness and Combat Power office worked alongside the Chilean Air Force to stand up the first operational SDA system in the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility.

“The Chilean Air Force has expressed interest in significantly increasing their involvement in space and this is a fantastic first step for Chile in establishing their own permanent SDA capabilities,” said U.S. Space Force Capt. Justin Lee, 15 SPSS Raven telescope lead, who oversaw the installation of the telescope. “Diverse geographic coverage is critical to ensuring that we have coverage of all objects in space.”

Increasing launch cadence and payloads in orbit expand demand for SDA capabilities covering all orbital regimes. In 2022, space launch providers around the world conducted a record 177 launches, a 31% increase over the previous year. Those launches put 2,267 payloads into orbit, a 32% increase over 2021.

The telescope is part of a pilot program where the Chilean Air Force, in conjunction with the USSF, will implement a station to monitor the Chilean sky for space objects.  The pilot program is designed to reduce the risks of a potential $3.8 million U.S. investment in non-traditional SDA systems in the SOUTHCOM AOR by validating optical sensors in the local conditions and geography of Chile. According to Lee, Chile’s physical environment is a premier location for the ground-based telescope.

“The combination of extremely dry climate, very tall mountains, and smooth laminar flow in the atmosphere allows for many locations that have viewing conditions rivaled by few places in the world,” said Lee. “The Atacama Desert is the driest place on the planet, with some locations having never seen a drop of rain in recorded history. It’s tough to beat that kind of weather for a telescope observatory.”

Lt. Col. Phillip Wagenbach, 15 SPSS commander, explained that the 15 SPSS and the Space Domain Awareness and Combat Power office will continue to operate the telescope system during the next six to 12 months with support from Chilean Air Force personnel, solidifying the U.S. government and government of Chile’s commitment to ensuring space security.

“This initial step paves the way for future permanent SDA systems being installed in Chile and forges a stronger international partnership going forward,” said Wagenbach.

Lee added that the program’s success depended on the partnerships and contributions of mission partners on the U.S. side to include Space Systems Command, Air Force Research Laboratory, and the United States Air Force Academy. The Space Domain Awareness and Combat Power office provided and configured their autonomous telescope control software and assisted in telescope assembly, calibration, and testing. The United States Air Force Academy provided a 12.5-foot dome for temporary use which will move to the Catholic University of the North in 2024.

“This program is a prime example of the value that comes from the partnership between the organizations,” said Lee. “It’s truly unique to have such a tight coupling between research, systems program office, and operations … it makes things like this possible that never would have been otherwise.”

This telescope system will be leveraged to experiment with new sensing modalities and techniques and serve as a testbed for the Space Domain Awareness and Combat Power office’s software. The software utilizes a global network of dedicated and volunteer observatories to enable next generation space domain awareness, as well as leverages collaborative heterogeneous sensors by employing agent-based autonomy, deep learning, and modern software infrastructure tools.   

Expended rocket bodies, inactive satellites, and debris further congest the environment. In 2022, DEL 2 tracked approximately 47,900 objects in space, a 16% growth in objects from 2021. Of those objects, 7,100 are active payloads, a 37% increase from 2021.