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    Learmonth Solar Observatory: Airmen Look Up from Down Under

    Learmonth Solar Observatory: 2WS, Det. 1 Airmen Look Up from Down Under

    Photo By Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeanette Mullinax | U.S. Air Force 2nd Weather Squadron Detachment 1 monitors daily solar activity from...... read more read more



    Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeanette Mullinax 

    Media Center - Japan

    The Sun rises and sets every day. For billions of people, it is not a noteworthy event, but for one group of Airmen it is the core of their mission.

    The Airmen of 2nd Weather Squadron Detachment 1 at the Learmonth Solar Observatory are fully committed to keeping an eye on the Sun each day it rises and sets, 365 days a year.

    Learmonth Solar Observatory is located along the western coast of Australia amidst the rugged outback. The closest town, Exmouth, where all observatory personnel live, is 25 miles away, and the closest city is a 12-hour drive.

    “I had to Google what Learmonth was because I had no idea,” said Tech. Sgt. Charles Robbins, 2WS Det. 1, radar, airfield and weather systems technician.

    Although the remote nature of Learmonth can make for a difficult assignment, its markedly clear view of the sun provides the ideal setting for any solar observatory.

    As one of five solar observatories around the world maintained by the 2nd Weather Squadron, Learmonth is operated jointly by the U.S. Air Force and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s Space Weather Services.

    “Our mission is to watch the Sun, so space observations is our bread and butter out here at Learmonth,” said Capt. Ustem Nu, 2WS Det. 1 commander. “We watch out for solar flares and geomagnetic storms, because those are the things that are impacting the next battlefield, which is space. It is our job to make sure that if there’s anything going on with the sun, we capture it, we codify it and we make sure that the Department of Defense is aware of everything.”

    While the mission at Learmonth has remained the same for over 40 years, its importance only increases as the DoD focuses on strengthening its space domain capabilities. A constant and unified network of space and solar activity surveillance grows especially vital with the increasing number of ground and space assets.

    “Every single second of every single day, the Sun is sending billions of tons of energy towards us,” Nu said. “Without this particular location here in Australia, there would be a gap in coverage of the Department of Defense’s monitoring of the sun. When a solar flare happens, this energy is moving at the speed of light. It takes about eight and a half minutes for light to get from the Sun to the Earth. So not having this installation here would put a handicap on the Department of Defense’s capabilities to assess the space environment, which is essentially the solar environment.”

    Strategically located in the Southern Hemisphere, the Learmonth Solar Observatory is a powerhouse for its observation capabilities. It is one of only two sites that operate both a radio solar telescope network and a solar observing optical network.

    “Our radio telescopes are what we use to listen to the Sun, and our optical telescopes are what we use to look at the Sun. So those two working in tandem make sure that we have redundancies, and that if something happens, we can see it and we can hear it. It just gives the DoD more credence and more strength behind our decision-making processes,” Nu said.

    In addition to other sensors, solar analysts use the combination of both telescope networks to monitor the Sun. They must report all dangerous solar emissions or any activity that could interrupt communications, affect operations, damage or destroy satellites, or have damaging effects on Earth’s infrastructures.

    Typically these events will trigger sounding alarms inside the observatory buildings.

    “In those times, it is a little bit more stressful,” said Staff Sgt. Marc Veale, 2WS Det. 1 solar analyst. “We have to send messages out within two minutes of analyzing the activity, and we also have to verify the validity of it. It's a lot of pressure to perform in a two-minute window.”

    While the job requires strict attention to detail and long hours, Veale revels in the satisfaction of this special duty assignment.
    “I've always wanted to work at an observatory since I was a kid. So I feel like I've met a childhood dream and I get to further my career with the solar weather sciences,” he said.

    Another unique aspect to Learmonth is that the detachment primarily consists of only two types of enlisted Air Force occupations, solar analysts and radar, airfield and weather systems technicians.

    The RAWs technicians are required to complete an additional four weeks of advanced specialty training on radio and optical telescope maintenance prior to arriving at Learmonth.

    In addition to keeping the telescopes up and running, Robbins said the technicians are proud to take ownership of the observatory’s general upkeep including infrastructure, water and communications support.

    “It's a challenging job down here, but it definitely expands your horizon. It builds you to be a better leader and a better person in general,” Robbins said. “And if you're looking for a unique assignment in the Air Force, if you love the outdoors and if you love the beach, this is the place. I feel like this is definitely a hidden gem in the Air Force.”

    The Learmonth Solar Observatory was built on the foundation of the long-standing partnership between the U.S. and Australia, and has been home to U.S. Air Force personnel since the late 1970s.



    Date Taken: 06.26.2020
    Date Posted: 06.26.2020 02:59
    Story ID: 372874
    Location: LEARMONTH, WA, AU 

    Web Views: 330
    Downloads: 1