Space

RAF Corporal 'Living His Dream' In US Space Command

Corporal Mitchell Astbury's assignment comes as a result of a new partnership between the Royal Air Force and US Space Command.

A Royal Air Force corporal says he is living his dream after being selected to work with the United States Space Command.

Corporal Mitchell Astbury is one of two RAF personnel to have been assigned to 18th Space Control Squadron (SPCS) at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California last month.

He has also become the first overseas operator to qualify as an 'Orbital Analyst' with the newly-formed Combatant Command.

It means Cpl Astbury is officially certified as "ready to provide frontline defense of the space domain for the joint force, multinational partners and humanity", according to commander of 18 SPCS, Lt Col Justin Sorice.

In other words, the main role of Orbital Analyst is to observe space and report back to those who need to know, which could include NASA.

The exchange of personnel is part of a new partnership between the RAF and US Space Command, the latter which was re-launched in 2019 and is different to the United States Space Force.

Last year, the RAF became the first international partner in the US Space Command’s Operation Olympic Defender, a US-led international coalition formed to strengthen deterrence against hostile actions in space. 

Space is owned by no one and is becoming increasingly busy.

Earlier this month, the UK's Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, warned of the threat from space, saying: "The future is going to be about space, cyber, maritime, land and air."

Watch: What is it like to fight in space?

The role of 18 SPCS is to know where everything is in space.

It is a tri-national squadron, which has also included Canadian military personnel.

"I am living my dream," said Cpl Astbury.

"Ever since I was little, I used to love looking at the stars.

"It's totally surreal - I never thought I'd be working alongside NASA."

As part of their work, 18 SPCS receives data from sensors across the world, including RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire, which contains a radar maintained by the US.

Observations from these sensors are fed into a huge database and if anything looks set to collide, the squadron issues warnings to those concerned.

The recipient of the warning varies - it could be a commercial or academic institute which needs to change the path of their expensive satellite, or NASA who might need to move the space station slightly, or if time is short, evacuate the crew on board.

Captain Jessie Dumont trained Cpl Astbury and was the first Canadian and first international partner to be certified.

"I think we bring a different perspective to the operations because sometimes the United States operators tend to not think about the partners and what we can bring to the fight," she said.

Earth from outer space
Library picture of outer space (Picture: NASA/US Department of Defense).

"Any kind of battle that you go in, if you don’t know what the environment looks like, or what the battlefield looks like, you're not going to be able to operate in the environment."

In the first half of this year, 18 SPCS logged more objects than in the whole of 2019.

Last month, the UK launched a draft United Nations resolution, amid concerns over the lack of constraints on the use of new weapons or technology that could damage space systems.

It came after the UK and US accused Russia of launching an anti-satellite weapon into space - something which Moscow denied.

Knowing where things are is crucial to life on Earth.

"We wouldn’t be able to live without space activity, things like climate control, weather prediction, banking," says Cpl Astbury.

"90% of the world’s activities relies on space."