It has been revealed that the Royal Air Force was called in to help track Shuttle Discovery – utilising the powerful radar facility at RAF Fylingdales (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System) near York in Northern England.
The facility was the first place in the world to track Discovery on its initial orbit and the information they processed before the launch helped ensure a collision-free flight on its journey to the International Space Station.
He said that space surveillance was a secondary mission for RAF Fylingdales after missile detection, but space surveillance comprises 98 per cent of the base’s workload.
The radar base detects, tracks, identifies and catalogues every manmade object of more than 10cm in orbit around the Earth.
From the information gathered they can tell the size, shape, speed and orbit of an object which also allows them to predict where a certain object will be at a given time in the future.
This data is then passed to the Space Surveillance Network based in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado â€“ which was also the setting for the Stargate television series.
In March 1965, eight years after Sputnik 1 was the first manmade object sent into orbit, there were 555 objects orbiting the Earth.
Since 1957, a total of 28,784 objects have orbited the Earth and there are 9,544 objects circling â€“ the majority at an average speed of 17,500mph.
Sq Ldr Keighley said the objects include satellites â€“ both civilian and military â€“ along with pieces that have broken off larger objects. As soon as one object splits into two that secondary object must also be tracked and catalogued.
During shuttle missions â€“ and RAF Fylingdales plays a vital role in every one â€“ NASA uses Fylingdales’ data to ensure there is an empty “box” measuring 10km by 10km by 50km around the Shuttle in which there are no other objects.
If it is discovered that an object is going to approach close to the Shuttle then evasive action is taken. These calculations are done before the Shuttle takes off but Sq Ldr Keighley said things can change minute by minute.
He added that this particular mission, during which the crew practised space repairs and delivered parts to the International Space Station, was a precursor to a manned moon mission.