Space and astronomy news and information for the American Southwest. Coverage includes Vandenberg AFB rocket and missile launches.

DMSP: Another Global Utility

Commentary by Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels III
50th Operations Group, Detachment 1 commander

Schriever AFB Op-Ed Feature

2014 March 4

SUITLAND, Maryland -- August marks the 52nd year of continuous service for the Air Force's longest running satellite program. What program? Well, it's a somewhat lesser known capability; but, it still provides the U.S. another global utility. We are talking about the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program or simply DMSP.

Despite being a very old program, DMSP is still meeting U.S. Strategic Command and warfighter requirements with a greater than 99.8 percent mission success rate over the past 18 months. In fact, the Air Force has scheduled another DMSP satellite launch (flight 19) for April 3 to extend service. Why all the emphasis on an aging program? Well, it remains a key staple for the Department of Defense in providing global environmental monitoring. This service enables situational awareness for military planners and senior decision makers, and ultimately supports our higher level national security objectives.

Day-to-day, the 50th Operations Group, Detachment 1, leads operations and maintenance of DMSP to provide high-resolution global visible and infrared cloud data and other specialized meteorological, oceanographic and solar-geophysical data in support of DOD and civilian users worldwide. But what does that really mean; and how does it support global usefulness?

Fair question. The answer lies in looking at the specific capabilities of the six (soon to be seven) DMSP satellites. Here is a list of key sensor capabilities with specific examples of provided global support:

Cloud detection

One example includes sensor data that captures visible and infrared imagery that is used in target strikes. This same data is also used in providing close air support, routing of remotely piloted aircraft, surveillance support, tropical storm fixes and early warning for typhoon avoidance.

Atmospheric profiles

An example here includes microwave sensor data that captures snow cover, as well as upper atmospheric temperature and wind speed. This data is also used in providing worldwide sea surface temperatures and winds (a big key to providing piracy threat assessment since pirate vessels are likely to travel in favorable conditions).

Sea ice detection

Specialized DMSP sensors also measure sea ice concentration and thickness. This data is fused with other data sources to develop ice edge forecast maps that aid mission planners in conducting operations in Arctic and Antarctic regions. In fact, ice forecast maps are used to support safe aviation and maritime mission travel during Thule Air Base's annual resupply mission known as Operation Pacer Goose. This data is also leveraged during Operation Deep Freeze - a joint service, interagency operation that provides air and maritime cargo and passenger transport throughout Antarctica in support of the United States Antarctic Program. Yet another example of its utility includes support to the U.S. Coast Guard's ice breaking missions (the ice maps help show where thickness exists during ice-breaking operations).

Soil trafficability assessments

DMSP's versatility includes measuring soil moisture. This data is fed to computer models to help determine trafficability (or ability to travel over soil)--a huge asset for conducting land convoy operations or even landing U.S. helicopters in soft areas. In some instances, this data supports humanitarian vehicle travel and natural disaster relief efforts.

Space environmental monitoring

Other specialized DMSP sensors provide natural space environment data that supports Space Situational Awareness (space weather forecasts). This is helpful in assessing satellite anomalies, as well as forecasting high solar activity (scintillation) that could lead to high frequency or ultrahigh frequency communications and radar signal interference. Both warfighter and civilian communities also rely upon this data to enable geomagnetic storm warnings.

Dust Storm Analysis

The primary DMSP sensor supports both dust storm and volcanic ash analysis. These are key in conducting both combat and peacekeeping operations throughout the year. This data is also useful in understanding the gases and emissions that occur before a volcanic eruption (eruption prediction).

These are but a few of the key DMSP sensor capabilities. But they all demonstrate the global utility of DMSP. So, if you are ever asked about DMSP there should be no doubt about what it provides. If you are in a pinch, it might also be useful to reference this article or the associated link below.

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