MATT CLARK visits RAF Fylingdales to hear about tracking space debris and the vital role of the information gathered there plays in our lives.

VIGILAMUS, says the badge on the door, 'we are watching' and for 24 hours a day, every day, radar operators at RAF Fylingdales are doing just that.

They are looking for things in space and you'd be surprised what they see, from a pair of pliers to a glove lost on the first American space-walk.

In fact there are some 16,000 objects floating in space, mostly debris, and, astonishingly, all of it is catalogued.

With good reason, because floating is something of a misnomer. This stuff is rattling round the earth at more than 17,000 miles an hour and at that sort of speed even a rogue screw can cause serious damage to a satellite.

Fortunately most of these bits and pieces are harmlessly following a known orbit. But when one strays off course or goes missing, it's down to people such as SAC Mattie Boulton to raise the alarm.

"The catalogue we use is a bit like a bus timetable," he says. "If something turns up early or late, it could become a collision hazard."

Litter in orbit is the biggest hazard to the international space station and commercial satellites, which means Fylingdales is a kind of trouble-shooter for mobile phone and sat nav operators.

Indeed we are so dependent on satellites that in 1998, when one failed it temporarily silenced 80 per cent of the pagers in the United States; National Public Radio was unable to distribute broadcasts to affiliates and could only operate via its website.

Fylingdales station commander, Wing Commander Dave Keighley, says these days every element of critical national infrastructure, whether it is transport systems, water, communications, weather reports or emergency services, rely on space to some degree.

"We provide information that is relevant to governments around the world," he says.

"We're part of a global network that provides a window on space. It is an international domain, no one owns it and we all have a vested interest in space being safe to operate satellites in."

Although this hazard reporting amounts to 99 per cent of Fylingdales' work, the number one priority is still to provide an early warning of ballistic missile attack.

The base was commissioned during the icy depths of the Cold War. The Soviets had put up Sputnik, the world's first satellite and it terrified the Americans, because the same technology could be used to launch intercontinental missiles.

Construction was shrouded in secrecy, with scores of trucks making their way along the tortuous road to Whitby, all carrying equipment imported from the United States. The total cost on completion in 1963 was £45million, three quarters of it paid by the US.

Originally the radar system was housed in three golf balls, each of them 84 feet in diameter. As with most 1960s military kit it all resembled Meccano, but everything worked – and it worked well.

At first the radars looked towards the North Pole, the expected track of a Soviet missile. Later, to combat a potential threat from nuclear armed submarines, the radars became watchers of the skies in all directions.

The beam sits three degrees above the horizon and searches 3,000 nautical miles into space, constantly sweeping through 360 degrees. However, the aerials can change direction almost instantly, allowing the radar to cover the full sweep in a fraction of a second.

It is the most powerful in Europe and with so many nations now armed with nuclear weapons, Wing Commander Keighley says Fylingdales is as important today as it was at the height of the Cold War. Then there were two sides and each knew they had ballistic missiles.

"Today over 30 countries have that capability and when you look at where the instability is around the world it overlaps with some of those countries," he says.

"Fylingdales provides an insurance policy that demonstrates a surprise attack on the UK using ballistic missiles could not succeed."

God forbid the radar operators should have to perform their primary role, but if the unthinkable happened and a missile breaks into Fylingdales field of view, it will be within two to ten minutes away. The crew commander then has 60 seconds to assess whether it is a blip in the system or a potential threat.

If it's the latter, he or she will send a message simultaneously to UK and US superiors. They also supply information on the launch point, which will have been quickly worked out, and a predicted impact point. This is then refined during the missile’s flight.

Importantly, the base is there purely to report. Threat assessments are made elsewhere.

"We have to get it right every time, which is why our crews are trained to a very high proficiency level," says Wing Commander Keighley .

That means scenarios are practised and evaluated every day, there is also a simulator where the 'real' thing can be replicated.

Fylingdales belongs to the Ministry of Defence, but its equipment is owned by the US Defense Department. The base operates as one of three in an American Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) chain of radars that are linked across the North Atlantic.

The others are in Thule, Greenland and Clear, Alaska; all are components of the US Air Force 21st Space Wing based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

But Fylingdales is not just home to Europe's biggest radar, the station sits in 3,000 acres designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, which means Wing Commander Keighley also has responsibility for managing, protecting and maintaining the area, together with its rare species of animals and plants.

Because this has been fenced off, MOD land for 50 years it's a haven for wildlife. There are water voles, otters and adders in abundance not to mention butterflies and orchids. The base even has the need for a resident bird man.

About 380 people are based at Fylingdales, three quarters of them civilians. And it's like a small town, with its own restaurant, accountant, doctor, fire brigade and police force. But from the road all you see is that huge pyramid.

And it require two million watts of electricity to run, the equivalent of 2,000 family homes; all of it generated on base. Wing Commander Keighley says the software it uses is designed to ignore targets that do not behave like a rocket being launched or a satellite in orbit.

"It is little surprise, therefore, that we have never knowingly detected a UFO."

Big Ben started it

The world's first ballistic missile attack was carried out in September 1944 by a German V2, which landed in Croydon. At first Winston Churchill attempted to cover up what was happening, saying it was a gas explosion, because Britain had no defence against the rockets.

He went on to set up Operation Big Ben with WAAF plotters sent to northern France armed with little more than a mobile radar and slide rule. They calculated where the missile had come from and aircraft were sent to bomb the site.

Operation Big Ben remained a secret until 2004. It was the fore runner of RAF Fylingdales.

York Press:
Convoy of antenna parts along Saltersgate in May 1962

York Press:
Fitting radome panels in May 1962

York Press:
A radome nears completion in August 1962