Buckley Air Force Base at forefront of alerting to missile launches worldwide

AURORA, Colo. -- If North Korea or any other country fires a missile, the United States would know within moments.

That knowledge comes courtesy of the military men and women at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora.

Buckley is home to the only spaced-based missile warning system in the nation.

The giant white orbs provide visual entertainment for kids -- and kids at heart.

But their purpose is much more serious: To protect every American and allies from the dangers of ballistic missiles.

“In a community of prairie dogs, you’ve got one that keeps watch for threats. That prairie dog provides an alert to other members of the community,” Lt. Col. Shannon DaSilva said.

DaSilva with the Second Space Warning Squadron compared her team of 200 airmen to prairie dogs who alert Americans to the first signs of a missile launch anywhere in the world.

“The airmen have been on alert 24/7, 365 days a year since 1972,” she said.

Their alerts are made possible with the help of six giant golf-ball-looking structures that are seven stories tall called radomes.

Inside each one sits a 60-foot antenna and 60-foot satellite dish that point skyward, and communicate with satellites 23,000 miles away.

They use infrared technology to search the planet for missile launches.

“So, if it has a big enough thermal signature anywhere on the planet, we can see it,” DaSilva said.

Once they detect danger like recently in North Korea, they report it to the nation’s highest leaders, who decide what action -- if any -- to take.

It’s a job growing in intensity because of the growing danger.

“Between 2009 and 2014, we saw 1,200 ballistic missile events globally. That is an incredible amount for these operators to process,” DaSilva said.

What used to be primarily a battle between the United States and Russia has expanded to more than 20 nations, along with a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

“We tell our crew members they stay alert. Never has there been a more critical time for them to pull this mission in defense of the nation and they take that incredibly seriously,” DaSilva said.

DaSilva wouldn’t talk about what options leaders have when detecting a missile that could impact America or its allies.

But the U.S. defense secretary said in the case of North Korea, that the missiles could be taken out.

New satellite systems are coming online at Buckley in the next few years.