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News > CSAF Team Excellence Award recognizes 3rd SOPS Airmen
CSAF team award honors 3rd SOPS Airmen
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Capts. Bruce Mitchell and Javier Figueroa, standing, help Capt. Mark Tozer and David Johnson move Defense Satellite Communications System Satellite A-2's into supersynchronous orbit June 1, 2005. Captains Mitchell and Figueroa were among eight current and former 3rd Space Operations Squadron Airmen who received a Chief of Staff Team Excellence Award Oct. 4 for developing methods to preserve fuel and prolong the lifespans of DSCS satellites. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)
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CSAF Team Excellence Award recognizes 3rd SOPS Airmen

Posted 10/11/2006   Updated 10/11/2006 Email story   Print story


by Staff Sgt. Don Branum
50th Space Wing Public Affairs

10/11/2006 - SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Eight Airmen currently or formerly assigned to the 3rd Space Operations Squadron here were named in a Chief of Staff Team Excellence Award Oct. 4. 

The Airmen were part of a Defense Satellite Communications System Life Extension Team that found ways to extend the operating life of DSCS satellites by several years.
Schriever's team members are Capt. Trey Staples, 1st Lts. Jason Ludwig and Samuel Oppelaar and Staff Sgt. Adam Young. 

Former 3rd SOPS Airmen included in the award are Capt. Bruce Mitchell, Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.; Capt. Javier Figueroa, Air Force Research Laboratory at Brooks City-Base, Texas; and Capt. Timothy Kuechle and 1st Lt. Omar Perea, 533rd Training Squadron at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. 

The team, also made up of Airmen at SMC and contractors with Aerospace Corporation and Lockheed-Martin Space Systems Company, developed a more accurate means of measuring satellites' fuel, changed how the satellites maneuver and eliminated unnecessary constraints to DSCS' orbital boxes, adding as much as five years to each DSCS satellite's operational life. 

Lt. Col. William Bishop, 3rd SOPS commander, said the teamwork among Airmen, government civilians and contractors is a point of particular pride for him. 

"This has already had huge benefits for our users in the field," Colonel Bishop said. "The DSCS constellation is known for its reliability. The techniques developed by the Life Extension Team allow us to provide that reliability well into the future." 

Demand for military satellite communication bandwidth has increased since the beginnings of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The 50th Space Wing here delivers secure communications to war fighters through the DSCS and Milstar constellations. 

The Defense Information Systems Agency contracts additional secure communications through commercial satellites, at a cost of approximately $5 million per year per satellite. Therefore, every year of continued DSCS operation is money in the Defense Department's pocket. 

Fuel consumption has become the key limiting factor for DSCS satellites to continue delivering combat effects, according to a report from the DSCS Life Extension Team to the Air Force Manpower and Innovation Agency. 

If satellite operators know how much fuel is on a satellite, they know how much longer they can continue using it. As satellites approach the end of their operational lifetimes, either because of low fuel or equipment failure, operators "supersynch" the satellites, moving them out of geosynchronous orbit to make way for replacements. 

The current method of measuring a satellite's remaining fuel is based on the frequency of maneuvers and a pressure-volume-temperature equation. The margin of error is 5kg, or 11 pounds. 

That's acceptable for most of the satellite's life, but it becomes a problem when the gauge on the satellite's fuel tank starts to hover on "E." If a satellite were a car, the low fuel light would tell satellite operators when to "pull over" into a supersynchronous orbit. 

"Toward the end of mission, the plus-or-minus 5kg accuracy could cause disposal of a satellite (more than) a year sooner than necessary," the report states. 

The new measurement method, known as propellant gauging system or PGS, uses data from the satellite to create a fuel estimate and is accurate to about 2 pounds. That means the low-fuel light doesn't come on prematurely. The improved accuracy equals up to four more years of satellite operation, according to the report. 

"PGS has the largest impact on the war fighter with the least amount of money spent," Lieutenant Oppelaar said. "It's a lot of bang for the buck." 

The team's second finding involved the way satellites maintained their north-south positioning, or inclination control. Thrusters used to align the satellite were countering the thrusters that maneuvered the satellite in orbit. 

Reprogramming the satellites' thrusters to work together increased the vehicles' fuel efficiency by 10 to 15 percent, the report states. The result is up to two additional years of satellite operation. 

The third area of improvement involved the "orbital box"--a stationkeeping boundary that satellites maintain so they can communicate with people on the ground. Satellites must spend fuel to keep station in their orbital boxes; the smaller the box, the more fuel they spend. 

In DSCS' case, the box was too small, which cost each satellite 52 pounds of fuel per year during the early phases of its life cycle. The DSCS Life Extension Team reviewed users' requirements and enlarged the box, which results in substantial fuel savings. 

The Air Force has already saved nearly $10 million. DSCS Satellite B-9 was originally scheduled to be disposed in July 2005, but improved fuel estimates have allowed 3rd SOPS to push the disposal back to at least August 2007. 

The savings will improve even more quickly, as each of the satellites currently in the DSCS constellation will gain years of additional operation from the new processes. The study may also prove useful for designing the next generation of Air Force satellites, said Maj. Jeremy Anfinson, who wrote the report. 

"(It may not be) in the conventional way of using our estimation technique but more along the lines of recognizing that satellites should be designed for longer mission life," Major Anfinson said. "A part of that design could implement tools that minimize finite variables such as fuel." 

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