Keeping the Radars Humming

Feb. 4, 2017 Kwajalein Hourglass

When a foreign nation launches a satellite into orbit, the Department of Defense puts eyes on it quickly, turning to the historic nest of radars at the Kiernan Re-entry Measurement System Site on Roi-Namur.

In such a scenario, ALTAIR—a heavy hitter in U.S. space surveillance missions—pivots and tilts in a rush, each movement under the command of sensor operators in the United States. Staring into the reported direction of the launched spacecraft, the hulking radar spits out and sucks in streams of high-frequency electromagnetic waves, detects the “new foreign launch,” fixes on the satellite and tracks it along its orbit around Earth. High-bandwidth KREMS radars like MMW and ALCOR may take a handoff from ALTAIR at this point, switching on and homing in on the satellite’s location to provide detailed imagery of the vehicle—all of which gets packaged up and sent off to the intelligence agencies for further investigation.

It’s an exciting, complex ballet involving physics and national defense. It’s one of the primary missions of the KREMS radar bank at the northern tip of the atoll, and every time a new foreign launch is detected, the Reagan Test Site gets a reaffirmation of the strategic importance and daily utility of the Army and Air Force missions in the Marshalls.

But one crucial element in this chain of events is often overlooked.

If a mission is to track a new foreign launch, keep tabs on thousands of orbiting satellites each month or perform space object identifications of the growing field of man-made debris in orbit, that mission goes nowhere unless the Roi-Namur Power Plant can supply the juice to keep the sensors humming.

Roi-Namur Power Plant Electrician Jim Friedenstab checks the vital signs of the plant’s hulking diesel engines, always waiting for calls from RTS staff at the Kiernan Re-entry Measurement Site. .

“If the power goes down, you don’t have the radars,” says Roi rat Jim Friedenstab, an electrician at the power plant. “And the radars are the reason why we’re here.”

Operating a power plant that feeds an island grid built to power energy-hungry radars used for unpredictable tracking missions is not a normal power plant job. Other power plants are often able to source data to identify trends in energy usage and predict peak consumption times, making it easier to know how much energy will be needed when and where. On Roi, those predictive qualities are largely absent.

“Reactive is how I’d call it,” Friedenstab says, turning knobs on a long bank of machines that control the plant’s hulking diesel engines—the real hearts of the radars. Reactive as opposed to predictive, he says: There is no schedule of new foreign launches RTS can send to Friedenstab and his co-workers at the plant. Some satellite tracking and space object identification tasks are scheduled ahead of time and predictable; other regular missions surely aren’t. Not knowing when KREMS is going to need all the juice the plant can muster leaves plant personnel on edge, forcing them to be ready to act in a moment’s notice, Friedenstab says.

“When the radars call, we go,” he explains. “Because right now, I’m running the island on [several] engines. When the radars call, I’ve got to go at least one more engine. … Sometimes it can get to enough that [several] more engines are switched on.”

Constantly increasing and decreasing large amounts of voltage produced by the plant engines is a delicate balancing act that requires constant vigilance. Ensuring the safety of the grid and the people living and working on the island is a major part of Friedenstab’s job. Too little juice and systems “brown out.” Too much and you get fried equipment and exploded transformers.

“It’s a mad house,” he says. “It drives me nuts.”

The Roi Power Plant, like most, is a 24-hour operation. But, even at night, when the ovens, lights and water heaters are off and the grid energy usage low, the radars need to come online and to perform tracking missions. The process requires just as much work from the plant during the night as during the day. It’s a constant battle, Friedenstab says.

“There’s no holidays,” Friedenstab says. “No, ‘Hey, honey, I’m going to go put this on auto pilot, and we’re going to take off and go have Christmas dinner.”

Having now spent four years at the Roi-Namur Power Plant, it’s there that Friedenstab has worked some of the most demanding shifts of his nearly 30-year career as an industrial electrician. There’s a learning curve, he says, newcomers should be aware of.

“When you come in here, you don’t know nothing. And you better learn quick,” he says. “Because you’re expected to have an electrical knowledge. And it’s not rocket science. But at the same time, if you’re weak in [terms of] being an electrician, you’re not going to make it.”

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