Reagan Test Site Role Highlighted at Space and Missile Defense Symposium

Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, commanding general of U.S. Space and Missile Defense Command, addresses the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville last week.

Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass

The annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium took place last week in Huntsville, Alabama, hosting thousands of service members and professionals working in the fields of space, missile defense and cybersecurity.

Held Aug. 7-9 at the Von Braun Center in “Rocket City,” the conference featured speeches by leaders within the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Strategic Command. Panel discussions, scholarly research presentations and technology exhibits by defense contractor companies and select foreign military units were also part of the three-day event.

Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, commanding general of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, addressed the symposium Aug. 7, commending the globe-spanning active duty and civilian workforce that make the SMDC mission possible.

Via a live video link at the conference center, the general did a question-and-answer session with 12 members of SMDC, each in a different geographic location, from Kuwait to Kwajalein. Along with presentations of short videos recorded with these personnel on site at the featured far-flung SMDC posts, Dickinson and his team described how individuals and their skillsets contribute to the force and how SMDC accomplishes its broad range of space and global missile defense missions.

One of the videos Dickinson called up for symposium attendees featured SMDC Space Officer Capt. Wojciech Stachura. At a sunny, ocean-side location on Roi-Namur, Stachura explained the importance of SMDC’s Reagan Test Site to American missile defense and space operations.

“Today I am here at the Kwajalein Atoll, home of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, also known as RTS,” Stachura said in the video. “RTS is operated by Army personnel, government civilians, technical support contractors and scientists from MIT Lincoln Laboratory. We have over 40 years of experience supporting missile testing and space operations. RTS conducts continuous operations in support of the U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Air Force space programs and the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations, as well as other government and DOD organizations.

“Operations on Kwajalein Atoll offer many advantages,” the space officer told the crowd. “The austere location helps minimize the inherent risk and safety concerns involved in launch operations. And its proximity to the equator and vast open areas make it very efficient at conducting rocket launches to a wide range of orbits. The Reagan Test Site is, and will continue to be, a significant asset for the U.S. Army.”

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched from Meck Island on its way to intercept a ballistic missile target during an MDA flight test Oct. 24, 2012.

While Dickinson was one of the key speakers at the symposium, he shared the stage with plenty of other high-profile Pentagon leaders in the space and missile defense community.

In an Aug. 7 speech at the symposium, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, highlighted the importance of vigorous investment in space-based sensors to counter accelerating offensive threats from China and Russia.

“You can’t call them our friends if they’re making weapons that can destroy the United States of America,” he told the crowd.

Radars like Cobra Dane on Shemya Island in Alaska, ALTAIR on Roi-Namur and Joint Tactical Ground Station sites in Japan, Germany and elsewhere are critical to the nation’s new foreign missile and rocket launch duties. But Hyten said ground-based radars’ line-of-sight limitations could be overstepped with a globe-spanning constellation of dependable yet affordable sensors that are parked in low earth and dedicated to watching for and tracking hostile launches from boost to impact.

“There is not enough islands in the world to build radars on to see all the threats to be able to characterize the threats,” said Hyten. “You just can’t get there from here, so the only place to go to do that is a place where the U.S. is actually strongest and technology is there to do it, and that’s in space. We have to move into space.”

The point, the symposium speakers explained, is to improve the lethality of American missile defense systems like the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense in the U.S. and systems abroad in theater like deployed Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense and Patriot batteries, as well as sea-based Aegis systems on missile destroyers and Aegis Ashore sites in Romania, Poland and—in the future—Japan.

Without the necessary sensor infrastructure online, the mission of missile defense would be entirely different, Hyten said. It was a point he hammered on, saying, STRATCOM needs “sensors first, shooters second, capacity third. … If you don’t have the sensors, then the other two really don’t matter.”

At a time of widely reported Chinese and Russian advances in non-ballistic hypersonic weaponry development, a constellation of enhanced sensors designed to detect and track launches early in flight could significantly aid America’s defense against these superfast vehicles, according to some analysts in the missile defense community.

“The most important thing to do in the missile defense business is making sure you can see and characterize the threat,” Hyten told the Symposium crowd. “If you can’t see and characterize the threat, I don’t care what kind of shooter you have. There is nothing you can do about it. So the most important thing is as you look at all the threats that are coming together, hypersonics, etc.—is that we have to be able to see that threat.”

A duo of missile tracking satellites collectively known as the Space Tracking and Surveillance System was put into orbit in 2009 and is still active, but the system is used primarily as missile test launch assets. Another Air Force multi-satellite network, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), is now emplaced in orbit and can currently detect and track launches.

But, according to Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, the existing capabilities are by no means future proof.

They are, “exquisitely capable, very expensive, very vulnerable systems that were designed and deployed in an era where we really didn’t have any space adversaries,” Griffin told the symposium crowd.

The timeline to build, launch and validate a cheaper, more advanced and hardier system will depend on collaboration between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the MDA, the release of the government’s anticipated Missile Defense Review and, of course, congressional approval.

Also part of the symposium’s three days of events were discussions on ways to improve sharing missile defense intelligence with U.S. allies; renewed Congressional effort to authorize funding for development of a space-based interceptor system capable of striking down missiles around the world in their boost phase; and what the proposed Space Force might look like.

Hyten had this to say about the Space Force proposition.

“You’ve seen the Congress of the United States pass a law that says we have to go look at developing a Space Corps inside the United States Air Force to figure out how to do that,” said Hyten. “And we have reports to Congress that are due back this month, talking about that. You see Congress talking about standing up a sub-unified command for space now. You see the president of the United States calling for a Space Force. …

“If you take one step back and you look at all the things leading up to that, they all say the following: We have a threat in space; space is a warfighting domain; we have to treat it like a warfighting domain. That’s it, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. So as we do all this, we’re going to be in a much better position as a nation.”

On the Island of “the Forgotten,” ARPA Planted a Seed Called TRADEX

Before and after: ARPA’S Tracking and Discrimination Experiment radar on Roi-Namur at the Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands.

Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass

The roots to Roi-Namur’s critical role in American military radar applications lie with TRADEX. Here’s the story.

In the late 1950s, the Navy was ready to begin mothballing the naval base at Kwajalein. The last round of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands, Hardtack I, had drawn to a close, and negotiations with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s would, indirectly, prohibit further atomic testing in the archipelago. With the island’s critical logistics role in supporting the nuclear campaigns in the northern atolls closing, the Navy slated Kwajalein for abandonment the next year.

Then Nike Zeus came to the rescue .

The base got a new lease on life when personnel with the Army Rocket and Guided Missile Agency, Bell Telephone Laboratories and Western Electric Co. poured over maps, looking for the ideal place to build and test America’s first ABM system: Nike Zeus.

Kwajalein, was ideal, planners agreed, because of its modern infrastructure: An airport and pier, new housing and recreational facilities and more already existed on the island. But more importantly, it lay far enough from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to allow the Air Force to test launch intercontinental ballistic missiles at full range. On the receiving end, the Nike Zeus missile and radar suite could be built up on the island for full-scale intercept testing of ICBM-class targets.

But what about Roi?

In response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik and the R7 Semyorka ICBM-class missile, Eisenhower’s secretary of defense Neil McElroy established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now known as DARPA) in 1958, the same year the Navy was planning to shutter Kwajalein. ARPA was assembled with the purpose of coordinating America’s missile programs and rally them against Soviet advances in rocketry and satellite development.

One of the top concerns at ARPA was how little American scientists and the DOD knew about the physics and phenomenology of ballistic missiles as they re-enter the planet’s atmosphere. To gather this data, the organization established a re-entry measurements projects called Project PRESS—the acronym meaning Pacific Range Electromagnetic Signature Studies—and put Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, itself only seven years old, in charge.

But where could these scientists and engineers set up an outpost to study ICBM warhead re-entries at full range? Kwajalein, of course.

Because the Air Force was planning frequent Atlas shots to Kwajalein Atoll as part of Nike Zeus testing, ARPA and Lincoln Lab could count on plenty of targets of opportunity to gather the data they were looking for. To gather this re-entry data, the PRESS team would be able to use the Nike-Zeus Discrimination Radar and Target Track Radars on Kwajalein.

But there was the need for a separate radar dedicated solely to the Project PRESS focus on phenomenology studies. That radar would eventually take the name of Target Resolution and Discrimination Experiment (TRADEX). Interestingly, a bit of a fight sprung up between Team ARPA/Lincoln Lab and Team ARGMA/Bell Labs about where to put this new sensor. ARPA and Lincoln Laboratory had chosen the North end of Kwajalein, but Bell Labs—the technical director for Nike Zeus—was concerned about TRADEX’s radio frequency interfering with the Nike Zeus radars. ARPA’s and Lincoln Lab’s attempts to prove there would be no such interference fell on deaf ears.

Forced to take TRADEX elsewhere, ARPA and Lincoln Lab’s attention soon drifted northward, to the conjoined islets of Roi and Namur, where the Japanese had built an airstrip and piers and docks for servicing submarines during WWII. At 419 acres in size, it was big enough for the Project Press mission, and it was far enough away at 43 miles distance to alleviate any concerns Bell Labs might have about radio interference. Roi-Namur, was the solution.

There were, of course, a few logistical downsides to choosing Roi-Namur. The infrastructure on the island had been left to rot since 1946, turning Roi-Namur into a jungle ghost town in the passing years. All of the Japanese facilities were, of course, destroyed, and no airplanes could land on an air strip swallowed in overgrowth. To get there, PRESS planners and Army Corps of Engineers staff were forced to make the trips up to the islet in tugboats. Still, the teams would make progress.

The Corps, which had already been hard at work Kwajalein on the Nike Zeus project, sent equipment and men to Roi to perform vibration and seismic tests on soil around the island to pinpoint the best location for TRADEX. A few months later, the jungle overgrowth on the airstrip was cleared away, and one of the Navy’s Grumman HU16D Albatrosses landed on the airstrip. Lt. Col. Ken Cooper of ARPA joined Lincoln Laboratory’s Glen Pippert, Leo Sullivan and Bill Ward on a final preconstruction tour of the island. They confirmed the location of TRADEX to be the north point of Namur.

By the start of 1961, Corps crews were on Roi-Namur to begin construction. They and employees of RCA—the subcontractor to Lincoln Laboratory on the TRADEX build—lived aboard a rehabilitated barracks ship, APL-24, which was moored near the long-since-demolished Jackaroo Club (just southwest of the terminal).

Interestingly, while the TRADEX technical facilities and office spaces were under construction, onsite PRESS staff had no choice but to adapt and use what they could find. The two-story Japanese bunker near the intersection of Copra Road and TRADEX Road was renovated, becoming the first Project Press office.

Despite the logistical and environmental challenges on the remote, overgrown jungle island, the Army Corps of Engineers, RCA, ARPA and Lincoln Laboratory banded together and had a world-class research radar ready to track ICBMs in a little over a year.

During the spring of 1962, the radar powered on. And on June 26, 1962, TRADEX successfully acquired and tracked the first ICBM launched at Kwajalein Atoll, picking it up in the vicinity of Hawaii with its large antenna and high power. In the series of Nike Zeus intercept tests revving up at Kwajalein and Vandenberg, TRADEX would play a major role in helping ARPA and Lincoln Laboratory understand the physics of ICBM re-entry. In subsequent programs, it would be crucial in helping the organizations understand and improve radar discrimination—picking out re-entering warheads from decoys and other threat cloud clutter.

More than 55 years after that first intercept tracking success, TRADEX remains a regular workhorse at the Kiernan Reentry Measurements Site, and Lincoln Laboratory still has a strong presence at the sensor. Upgraded in several stages throughout the years, TRADEX still performs its classic ICBM re-entry acquisition and tracking role. But outside of re-entry test windows, you can see the radar busy with other tasks like acquiring and tracking new foreign launches and satellite orbit transfers and deep-space object tracking as part of U.S. Air Force Space Surveillance Network activities.

LEFT: TRADEX under construction in the 1961-1962 time frame. RIGHT: Modern configuration of TRADEX today.

SOURCES: “Project History.” ABM Research and Development at Bell Labs; “History of Lincoln Laboratory at the Reagan Test Site.” John Nelson and Kenneth Roth, Lincoln Laboratory Journal; “The History of the Kiernan Re-entry Measurements Site.” Michael Holtcamp, Kwajalein Missile Range Directorate, Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Command, Huntsville, Alabama.

SMDC Tech Center Director Discusses Exciting Future on the Range

Thomas Webber, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command Technical Center director, hosts a town hall for Technical Center employees June 19 at the Von Braun III auditorium on Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. Webber also hosted a town hall at U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll May 16. In both town halls, Webber discussed the future of the Technical Center and its missions. (U.S. Army photo by Carrie David Campbell)

Jordan Vinson, for U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command

U.S. ARMY GARRISON KWAJALEIN ATOLL, Republic of the Marshall Islands — In a brief address and question-and-answer session last month, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command’s Technical Center director highlighted a host of recent Reagan Test Site mission achievements and forecasted busier missions to come.

Director Thomas Webber hosted the special town hall May 16 at the Kwajalein High School Multi Purpose Room for the Soldiers, Department of the Army civilians and contractors who operate RTS and guests.

The latest major range operation, the Air Force Global Strike Command Glory Trip 224 Minuteman III launch and re-entry, was representative of Kwajalein Atoll’s position at the tip of the spear in ensuring the strategic deterrence of the United States, he said.

“For these (Glory Trip) missions, we’re testing our strategic offensive capabilities to deliver intercontinental ballistic missiles,” said Webber. “That is the strategic deterrent that brought down the wall.”

The planned upgrades of the nation’s fleet of more than 400 nuclear-tipped ICBMs likely means a frenetic mission future for RTS personnel and instrumentation, he added.

The Air Force is “going to be improving and modernizing them and going to the next generation,” he said. “What’s going to happen is there’s going to be increased up-tempo at some point to be able to test those systems.”

There is more to the Technical Center than Glory Trip missions. An Army laboratory designated by the government to execute leading edge science and technology, scientists, engineers and technicians at the Technical Center work on an array of advanced projects, sometimes in conjunction with other government labs like Sandia National Laboratories.

Asked by USAG-KA Commander Col. James DeOre to explain what else the center works on, Webber summed up the organization’s focus in three particular areas: directed energy, hypersonic weapons and low earth orbit satellite development for tactical communications on the battlefield.

Laser and microwaves weapons are now a reality, Webber said. Recognizing the low cost-per-kill quality of high-powered lasers in the battle space, the Pentagon has poured considerable research and development into using directed energy as an alternative to expensive kinetic kill vehicles.

Small, low earth orbit satellite development is another of the laboratory’s focal points. The Army has leaned on the Technical Center to develop and produce low cost, pint-sized imaging and communications satellite platforms that may be employed as alternatives to traditional large military communications satellites that live in geostationary orbit.

The research and development initiative that might be of most interest to Kwajalein Atoll is hypersonic weaponry. Coming in two forms—cruise missiles or missile-launched, maneuverable re-entry vehicles—“hypersonics” can fly at speeds of Mach 5 and above, along a non-ballistic trajectory, making them extremely difficult to intercept with current anti-ballistic missile defenses like America’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. China and Russia are each testing their own versions of hypersonic weapons. In the meantime, American progress in the field continues at the Technical Center and in other national laboratories as interest at the Pentagon revs up, Webber said.

“We [the Technical Center] did the first U.S. successful execution of a hypersonic weapon,” Webber told the crowd. “So we’re very involved in helping the Navy execute for a program of record to actually field hypersonics. The Army is now getting much more involved. We have an undersecretary of the Army now, a vice chief of staff of the Army, very interested in hypersonics.”

Because of Kwajalein Atoll’s traditional geographic advantages, future tests of American hypersonic prototypes may likely occur, in some manner, at the RTS range, Webber said.

“There’s not a lot of places that the nation has to test hypersonics,” he said. “Kwajalein’s the place because of the long fly outs, the fast, long flying trajectories.” It is this quality, of course, that made Kwajalein Atoll, beginning in the early 1960s as part of the “Western Range,” the premiere test bed for full scale testing of the United States’ developing ICBM programs like Atlas, Polaris and later the Minuteman and the Peacekeeper.

While future flight testing of upgraded Minuteman IIIs and first generation hypersonic weapons may occupy RTS in the years to come, there is still plenty of work to do in the near term, Webber said. He pointed to a PowerPoint slide densely populated with many different mission types throughout 2018. From the Jan. 31 test of the Navy’s Aegis Ashore interceptor at Kauai, Hawaii, to NASA’s springtime launches of experiment sounding rockets, to two back-to-back Global Strike GT re-entries, range customers have put RTS through its paces, Webber said.
Being able to maintain a frenetic range operation schedule in the lead up to, during and after a major garrison logistics and support contract changeover is impressive, he said, acknowledging the challenges in adjusting to the new contract arrangement on the atoll.

“It makes executing this very difficult,” Webber said. “And that’s why it’s critical that all of you, and everybody across the community here, continues to play the vital role that they play and be a participant. And making sure that we’re finding ways to execute the mission. I know it’s challenging.

“I wanted to make sure that you all understood how critically important you are to executing this mission,” he added. “There’s a vital role in the garrison place, and there’s a vital role on the range side. But those don’t work by themselves. Those only work if you’re in unison and helping each other accomplish that and be successful. … All of you are critical in being able to make that mission happen, whether you’re on the range side or you’re on the garrison side of the house. It’s going to take all of you, and it’s going to take teamwork and collaboration and support across all echelons to make sure that we’re maintaining that capability.”
In no other type of mission setting could this be more accurate than in range operations conducted by the Missile Defense Agency, which will always be a part of RTS, Webber said. These are missions involving many land, sea and space-based sensors; many target missiles of all classes; personnel dispersed through a wide geographic area; and several interceptors.

Tests of systems like the Army’s high profile, truck-mounted Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense and MDA’s growing Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, are good examples. Just last year, the FTG-15 test of the GMD system proved both the capability of the system and the expertise and work ethic of the RTS and garrison workforce, he said. Missions like this in the future will again rely on the full support of the garrison and range communities.

“That was the first-ever ICBM launch from Kwajalein Atoll,” Webber said. “It was launched off of Meck Island. So that was a major undertaking, to demonstrate that our Ground-based Midcourse Defense System could work against an incoming ICBM. … It was a highly successful test. That test—while the interceptor came out of Vandenberg—would not have happened if it weren’t for the Reagan Test Site and the Kwajalein Atoll. You can’t do those kinds of engagements anywhere else in the world. This is a national strategic asset out here. So, those test missions are extremely important.”

While high profile intercept tests, flight tests and ICBM re-entries garner a lot of attention, Webber reminded the crowd of the vitally important national security missions that occur every day from the control rooms of the Kiernan Re-entry Measurement Site radars on Roi-Namur. The size, quality and power of the radars on RTS, paired with Kwajalein Atoll’s geographic location, allow for easy recognition, identification and tracking of missile and rocket flights that launch from rocket pads over the horizon in the Asia Pacific region.

When an Asia-Pacific adversary launches a rocket into space and deploys, for instance, a new military imaging satellite into orbit, the Pentagon, U.S. Strategic Command and the intelligence agencies often want radar images of the satellite and data on its orbital period. KREMS can do that, as well as search for and help identify random junk in orbit as part of the radars’ support role in the Air Force Space Surveillance Network.

“We’re keeping tabs on a lot of stuff that’s flying around in space right now,” Webber concluded. “And we do that to keep catalogs updated so that we know where stuff is [in orbit] to help support conjunction analysis to make sure that things don’t run into our critical assets that are in space. That it doesn’t run into manned space missions that flying up; that it doesn’t run into when you’re doing an interceptor missions. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t have issues with hitting debris and other things. Keeping track of that is very important. Our radars help contribute to and support that mission.”

A former Kwajalein resident, Webber spent five years working on the range, managing range flight safety from control rooms on land and on the U.S.A.V. Worthy ship. Every trip back to sunny Kwajalein Atoll is a joy, he said.

NASA, Physicists, Students Launch Spectrographs From Reagan Test Site

University of Colorado-Boulder’s Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph (CHESS), blasts off aboard a NASA Wallops Flight Facility Terrier rocket body on Roi-Namur April 17, 2018.

Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and astronomers, physicists and students from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Colorado-Boulder joined forces to launch a pair of custom-built spectrograph telescope payloads into the thermosphere from Roi-Namur earlier this month.

The Penn State team’s Water Recovery X-Ray Rocket (WRX-R) lifted off without a hitch from the Speedball pad on Roi at 10:40 p.m., April 4. It rode atop a NASA Terrier and Black Brant IX rocket assembly, flying 127 miles above the earth’s surface.

The launch of University of Colorado-Boulder’s payload, the Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph (CHESS), did not go as swimmingly. Its first 3-5 a.m. launch window opened up Friday, April 13, and a technical issue on the rocket forced managers to abort. The next day, strong, variable winds settled into the region, forcing campaign managers and safety personnel to scrub the launch three nights in a row—sometimes within mere seconds of liftoff.

Finally, at 4:47 a.m., April 17, during the final 13 minutes of the final launch window, the CHESS rocket’s first stage Terrier ignited, sending the payload nearly 180 miles from sea level and washing the south end of Roi in golden light and a deafening roar.

The University of Colorado-Boulder team, led by principal investigator Dr. Kevin France, designed the CHESS spectrograph to peer into translucent clouds of gas lying in what astronomers and astrophysicists call the interstellar medium, aka the matter between stars.

These thin gas clouds in the boondocks of space contain the fundamental building blocks of stars and planets. But in order to study them, astronomers must thrust telescopes out of the Earth’s atmosphere and orient them to bright, powerful stars lying behind these clouds. As the star’s light and stellar wind collide with the gas clouds, a telescope and spectrograph can view and record the chemical makeup of those clouds, along with their temperature and motion.

For the CHESS experiment, the target star was Gamma Ara, a young, 15-million-year-old giant, located in the southern sky constellation of Ara, near Scorpius.

“Gamma Ara possesses an unusually strong equatorial stellar wind that is injecting large amounts of material and kinetic energy into its immediate galactic environment,” France stated in an earlier NASA interview before flying out to Kwajalein Atoll.

His team worked with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility staff to package the CHESS spectrograph and telescope into a payload and launch it into the thermosphere along a parabolic trajectory. During the 300 seconds the telescope stared at Gamma Ara, the spectrograph recorded precious data on the interaction between the star’s powerful stellar winds and the clouds of gas between Earth and Gamma Ara.

Minutes after liftoff, the payload had begun transmitting the data down to Reagan Test Site’s telemetry radars and monitors manned by NASA and University of Colorado-Boulder teams: The last-minute launch and payload separation were successful.

“We won the stat lottery,” wrote Michael Snap, of NASA Wallops Flight Facility, in a Facebook message to the Roi Rats who came out to watch the liftoff. A photo he sent out of a monitor in the group’s mission control room resembled television static. In reality, it was good data, France stated.

“That image shows that the rocket’s onboard attitude control system successfully acquired the Gamma Ara star field,” he stated. “Once we were on target, our ultraviolet spectrograph started taking data and observed over 10 million photons directly from Gamma Ara.”

While CHESS investigated the interstellar medium between Earth and Gamma Ara, Penn State’s WRX launch April 4 set out to record soft X-rays emanating from the remains of a supernova that lit up the Earths’ sky during the last ice age: the Vela Supernova Remnant.

Its past is similar to other stars with masses magnitudes greater than that of the sun. Toward the end of its lifespan, the remnant’s progenitor star in Vela lost the ability to generate enough energy to resist the ceaseless inward pull of gravity. By converting simple gases like hydrogen and helium into heavier elements through nuclear fusion, the star had maintained itself against gravity’s grip for a long stretch of time. But when its share of simpler elements was depleted, its gas tank went empty, and gravity pulled the star’s mass inward toward the body’s center of gravity, creating an immense amount of energy that caused the star to essentially explode.

During supernova events like this, most of the rest of the star’s mass is ejected outward into the interstellar medium and beyond. That mass—the elements created through nuclear fusion over the eons—winds up, literally, everywhere. All the elemental building blocks of every organism and rock and chemical compound on Earth and any planet in the known universe are made of the elements forged in the nuclear furnaces of stars, stellar explosions or mergers, and tossed out across the cosmos.

This is why supernovas are of vital interest to scientists: They are the figurative Johnny Appleseed’s of the universe.

However, supernova events are relatively rare, with only two or three stars exploding per century in a typical spiral galaxy like the Milky Way. Moreover, they are short-lived events, often visible from Earth for only weeks or months.

More permanent analogs for research are the ejected chemical remains of a supernova death. Travelling through space at extreme speeds, these elements comprise what is called a supernova remnant. The speeds of the ejected elements are so high that when they collide with other clouds of material in the interstellar medium, they produce a shockwave that heats the elements to temperatures as hot as 10 million Kelvin. These high temperatures, in turn, cause the emission of X-rays, which themselves radiate throughout the cosmos and are detected by X-ray telescopes, such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Those X-rays reveal much about not only the supernova remnant, but the original supernova itself. That’s the whole point of WRX, explained the experiment’s principal investigator, Dr. Randall McEntaffer, in between runs out to the Speedball pad April 4 in preparation for the launch.

After the WRX rocket lifted off , it flew 127 miles into the thermosphere, an altitude in which the spectrograph could peer at an unexamined 10-square-degree section of the Vela Supernova. For 280 seconds, the Penn State telescope sucked up X-rays, helping reveal the remnant’s chemical makeup, density, temperature and shock velocity, along with the energy of the original supernova and the mass of the progenitor star.

Staring at a laptop monitor during a round of celebratory drinks at the Outrigger, graduate students involved in the WRX experiment gushed over X-ray detector data already streaming in. Bright white pixels against a black background revealed captured X-rays emanating from the Vela Supernova Remnant. Dr. Abe Falcone, head of the WRX team’s X-ray detector group and a research professor at Penn State, looked over their shoulders, explaining the meaning behind the white blips on the monitor.

“The little dots are telling you where the X-rays are [on the detector]. Then we look for the particular energy of the X-rays [the team] cares about. … In addition to that, you’re looking at the position on the detector for the particular energy of the X-rays they care about. Because, as a result of the way this telescope is made, these X-rays are going to get diffracted into a particular position on that detector as a function of their energy.”

In short, by finding out what the energy of the X-ray is—or its particular frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum—the team can better understand the details it is after by studying the supernova remnant, Falcone explained.

“You have particular elements that you’re looking to see what the makeup is [of] that supernova remnant,” he said. “And if you can trace back to that, you start to understand the fundamental makeup of where these elements come from around the universe. … All of this pieces back to understanding the stellar structure, to understanding the formation of stars, therefore the formation of the structure of the universe.”

Strapping a telescope to a relatively small rocket sounds bizarre. On a suborbital trajectory, the spectrographs depended wholly on instrumentation controlling the payload’s yaw, pitch and roll so as to keep the telescope on target. Given that the types of spectrograph readings aimed for in these experiments are impossible to gather by telescopes inside the atmosphere, it makes sense that NASA and the research teams would go to so much trouble to launch a telescope way up into the thermosphere and splash it down into the ocean.

What sounds bizarre is the massive effort that goes into what amounts to a maximum of three or five minutes of data collection. Stable telescope or not.

Clarification of the grand purpose of the whole operation came from Ted Schultz, a research engineer with Penn State’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The truth is, he said, the gratings, or prisms, used inside the WRX spectrograph to characterize soft X-rays are the most advanced units employed in astronomy today—greater than even some of the capabilities of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, launched in 1999.

“The [optics] that we’re using [are] called gratings. We make them at Penn State,” Schultz said. “And they’re state of the art; there’s nothing better in the world. And you don’t really think about this little rocket … being better than a huge space telescope already up there. But it is. It actually performs better in certain colors than the best thing up in space right now.”

In other words, Schultz said, think of sounding rocket launches as a way of test driving new hardware and validating the technology’s membership aboard the next space-based X-ray telescope.

“You’ve got to prove that what you’ve got is going to work in space before they even give you the money to build the new one,” Schultz said. “So, we spend a lot of time trying to launch these bleeding edge things that no one has ever launched before. And I think that is the real value of the sounding rocket.”

Shooting telescopes into the upper limits of the atmosphere is nothing new for Wallops Flight Facility. The team performs many suborbital launches for astronomical research at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where land recoveries of the payloads are a cinch.

But the observation targets—Vela and Ara—for this sounding rocket campaign are too difficult to spot from White Sands’ latitude in the northern hemisphere, even at altitude. The constellations are simply too close to the horizon.

The solution? Head south, to Kwajalein Atoll, and launch.

Launching sounding rockets from Roi is, like the sounding rocket program itself, also nothing new. Dozens of NASA, Air Force and Navy suborbital launches have occurred from the island’s Speedball pad since the early 1960s.

What separated the WRX and CHESS experiments from the pack, however, was the need to recover and return the payloads from their open ocean landing spots. For these experiments, NASA employed a newly developed water recovery system in each rocket, enabling the payloads to float on the ocean’s surface after parachuting down from their dates in the thermosphere.

To begin the recovery process, Berry Aviation pilots and spotters took off from Kwajalein aboard a Fairchild Metroliner after each launch to search for the floating payloads. Following coordinates relayed by Wallops Flight Facility personnel, the pilots spotted the payloads and relayed their exact positions to the U.S. Army Vessel Great Bridge ship and crew.

Tasked with recovering the payloads near Rongerik Atoll, north of Kwajalein Atoll, the Great Bridge and crew endured days of roiling seas in high winds while the NASA and University of Colorado-Boulder teams scrubbed repeated attempts for the CHESS launch due to the winds. The earlier recovery of the WRX payload had gone as smoothly as possible. But when it came time to pluck the CHESS payload from the water, things were a little hairier, said Great Bridge Capt. Ron Sylvester.

“When it launched, it was 4:47 a.m., and the splash point was 32 nautical miles from our location with heavy seas and rain,” Sylvester stated.

After locating the payload a further eight miles away from the splash down point, divers jumped in the ocean to attach lines to it. Because the water was too rough to crane the payload onto the boat, the next-best option was to tow it 50 nautical miles into the shelter of the closest landmass—Rongerik Atoll—and then bring it aboard with the crane. It was a long, bumpy trip, the captain said. He and his crew were glad to get the payload back to Roi and then get themselves back home.

“The sea was angry that day, my friend,” Sylvester ended, quoting a classic “Seinfeld” episode. “Like an old man taking cold soup back at a deli.”

The NASA Wallops Flight Facility’s WRX and CHESS campaigns brought a few months of action—and two dazzling launches—to sleepy Roi, essentially doubling the island population in the process.

“This is my second time here,” said NASA Ground Safety Officer Seth Schisler a couple of hours before the WRX launch. “We’ve been coming back since 1989, actually. … We’re one of the few customers that comes out and uses these launch pads.”

Schisler and the rest of the Wallops team are no strangers to setting up camp in remote areas of the world to perform launches.

“We’re kind of all around the world on remote science,” Schisler said. “That’s one of the unique features that we have with the sounding rocket program. We’re a really cheap way to space and [with] a really quick timeframe.”

Outside of their home base launch pads at the Wallops Flight Facility along the Virginia coast, the team regularly launches from Alaska, and throughout its history, Wallops has launched sounding rockets everywhere, from Australia and New Zealand, to Bermuda and Greenland. Just last September, again at Roi, the Wallops team launched two rockets for the Waves and Instabilities from a Neutral Dynamo (WINDY) experiment.

This month’s WRX and CHESS experiments mark two more successful missions, and there will surely be more to come.

Global Strike Command Launches Threat Cloud at Reagan Test Site

Feb. 11, 2017 Kwajalein Hourglass
A trio of mock warheads re-enter the atmosphere at Kwajalein Atoll during the GT221 launch of a Minuteman III ICBM from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. It was the Air Force Global Strike Command’s first test of multiple independent re-entry vehicles in years.

The Air Force Global Strike Command lobbed up a cluster of mock warheads aboard a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile Thursday night. Completing its 4,200-mile journey from the mid-California coast in roughly 30 minutes, the ICBM’s payload bowled into the atmosphere east of Kwajalein Atoll shortly after 8 p.m., deploying a trio of re-entry vehicles aimed for pre-planned impact areas in Mid-Atoll Corridor waters.

GT221, the official name of the exercise, was the first test in years in which the Global Strike Command put the Minuteman III’s ability to carry and deploy multiple warheads to a flight test. Many U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll residents took the opportunity to witness the rare sight. From a moonlit vantage at North Point on Kwajalein, hundreds of Kwaj residents watched the three re-entry vehicles pierce the planet’s atmosphere in excess of 9,900 mph and strike the ocean in a dim orange glow, a faint sign of the ferocious impact between the vehicles and the water.

Minuteman III post-boost assembly breaks apart, releasing debris and chaff to burn up in atmosphere. Three faint lines emerge from the fire in this long-exposure shot; they are the three mock warheads.

The launch and re-entry test was part of the Air Force’s long-standing program put in place to evaluate the longevity and accuracy of America’s fleet of nuclear-armed Minuteman III ICBMs. These “glory trip” tests, as they are fondly described in the space and missile community, occur several times a year at America’s western missile test range. Each test involves a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California and observation missions by personnel farther downrange, primarily at the Maui Air Force Optical Tracking Station and the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll.

After the missile maintainers and launch officers at Vandenberg launch the ICBM, it’s the job of mission technicians and engineers in mobile observation platforms and at Maui and Kwajalein Atoll to study the missile’s health during each stage of its journey. Using computerized telescopes and powerful radars, personnel collect the missile’s performance data and track its payload as it careens along a ballistic flightpath that takes it up to 700 miles above the Earth’s surface, far outside the planet’s atmosphere. As the mock warhead post-boost vehicle assembly nears its destination at Kwajalein Atoll, the radar systems at the Kiernan Reentry Measurements System site on Roi-Namur play a major role in determining how close each warhead comes to hitting its pre-planned mark at the atoll. Because accuracy is paramount in these tests, data collected by motion- and impact-sensitive watercraft are also pulled in to corroborate the radar systems’ data and help inform Global Strike Command how accurately the warheads performed.

Each dazzling GT re-entry at Kwajalein Atoll wraps up the end of a long logistical preparation phase involving agencies spread throughout the Department of Defense. Starting the process is missile selection: An armed Minuteman III gets randomly pulled from the fleet of about 450 nuclear-armed ICBMs spread across Air Force Bases in Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana. Then the missile is transported to Vandenberg, the go-to site for all operational launches and missile tests in the western continental United States. Later, missile maintainers and launch officers from one of three 20th Air Force missile wings join contractors and government officials at Vandenberg to set up the missile for launch and turn the keys to send the ICBM flying.

For Thursday night’s test, Airmen from the 91st Missile Wing, from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, were pulled from their Minuteman III silos at Minot and assigned to perform the test launch alongside Global Strike Command’s 576th Flight Test Squadron, the latter of which is based at Vandenberg to help perform the GT missions with visiting Airmen. The squadron commander commended the Minot group for its performance during the test mission.

“The men and women from the 91st Missile Wing Task Force, the Airmen from my squadron, and our host unit here at Vandenberg worked tirelessly to pull this launch off—it was awesome to see everyone’s hard work pay off!” said Col. Craig Ramsey, 576th Flight Test Squadron commander, in an Air Force statement. “These Airmen make me proud every day, and efforts like these make nuclear deterrence effective.”

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.”

SMDC Commander Briefs Kwajalein Community

During a speaking event Wednesday, Jan. 18 at the KHS Multi-Purpose Room on Kwajalein, Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, addresses Reagan Test Site personnel, U.S. Army Garrison Kwajalein Atoll Command staff, DOD civilians, Kwajalein residents, off-island visitors and the U.S. Ambassador to the RMI.

Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass

Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, the newly appointed command­ing general of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Com­mand, made his first visit to the Reagan Test Site on U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll this week. It was an opportunity for the former U.S. Strategic Command chief of staff to get a ground tour of RTS facilities on Kwajalein Atoll, receive briefings on RTS orbital tracking and anti-ballistic missile missions and meet the men and women who make RTS and USAG-KA tick.

During a speaking event Wednesday, Jan. 18, Dickinson made it a point to emphasize that his first work trip out of Redstone Arsenal after assuming command should be Kwajalein Atoll.

“It’s very, very important what happens out here,” Dickin­son told a crowd of island residents and off-island visitors at the Kwajalein High School Multi-Purpose Room. “Important enough that … this is my first trip. I wanted to come here first and then continue onward to Fort Greely, Alaska.”

It’s there in the subarctic that Soldiers of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion man some of the deployed anti-interconti­nental ballistic missile interceptors that form the backbone of the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-Based Midcourse De­fense system. As the senior commander of both Fort Greely and RTS—which plays a major role in all GMD flight tests—Dickin­son’s eagerness to put eyes on the Kwajalein Atoll element of the sweeping system was apparent.

The general led a viewing of the SMDC’s new command mis­sion video, designed to provide an engaging five-minute over­view of the agency’s current capabilities and emerging tech­nology testing programs, and he said he was happy to see how often RTS sensors, facilities and personnel are featured in the video package. Everything from Kiernan Re-entry Measure­ment Site radars to the Kwajalein Mission Control Center make an appearance. It’s a reflection, Dickinson said, of the strategic importance of the test site and the hard work of the people who operate it.

“The mantra is that the sun never sets on SMDC/ARSTART,” Dickinson said. “That’s because we have Soldiers across 11 time zones and 22 different locations around the world. You are one of them.”

Dickinson also took a moment to reflect on not only the ca­maraderie of the people behind the Kwajalein Atoll mission, but also the quality of life available to those who live and work here.

“Coming out here, my impression is this is a great team,” he said. “Particularly with the seamlessness between the op­erations piece, the garrison piece, the testing piece and having families and programs here on the island to support all that. … You can come out here and spend an indefinite period of time … and have all of these creature comforts that you have [in such a remote place.]”

Dickinson ended his address to the Kwajalein community with an optimistic message, reflecting on mission and garri­son funding and the recent transition of responsibilities for base oversight from the SMDC to the Installation Manage­ment Command.

“I’m your advocate, one of the advocates for the quality of life and mission support out here … And, again, it’s a very im­portant job,” Dickinson said. “I think you’re on a great path with funding and some of the [transitions] that have occurred over the past year or so. So, I’m optimistic about your future, in terms of the strategic plan.”