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June 15, 2014 in Urban Exploration

Zone Braams: NATO Satellite Uplink

Built in the affluent suburbs of a large Belgian city, this incredible relic of the Cold War was a NATO satellite ground station. Known among certain circles by its informal codename of “Zone Braams”, it became something of a legend in the Urban Exploration community before its demolition in June 2014. I was fortunate enough to get inside the base weeks before the official wrecking crews moved in.

Commissioned in 1969 (the same year that the first SATCOM satellite was launched), this base was an important control terminal in NATO’s international network. It facilitated a plethora of military radio transmissions for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. There were 24 of these satellite communication facilities located in NATO countries across the world, in addition to many mobile units. This particular site was finally decommissioned in 2012 after more than 40 years in operation. Its centrepiece was the satellite uplink dish, a giant structure (housed in a radar dome) whose bowl was 40 feet in diameter. At its peak, “Braams” was continually manned by a staff of 30 soldiers - most of them working as radio technicians.

The military base contained two main buildings and was fortified with a high barbed wire fence surrounding a barracks and armoury for the personnel who served there. They controlled and defended the satellite uplink in the Operations Building, which covered some 8,500 square feet and was mounted by a radome that had an area of 960 square feet. The station maintained supplies in the form of 30 days of food, as well as diesel fuel that would run two generators in the event of emergencies if the base became disconnected from the local electrical grid.

In the early 1990s, “Braams” is known to have operated in conjunction with two other “AN/FSQ173” control terminals at Folly Lake, in Nova Scotia, and a British Skynet base at RAF Oakhanger in the United Kingdom. They were constantly tracking a NATO satellite positioned in geosynchronous orbit off the coast of Africa. The Belgian uplink was perfectly aligned with this satellite along a north-south axis, so was consequently able to receive the strongest signal.

The NATO satellite above Africa broadcast a signal in the Super High Frequency. In this signal there were up to 10,000 different channels of information which was received at the ground by a low-noise amplifier located on the dish. The amplified signal was then sent to a de-multiplexer, which translated the signal into the appropriate channels and routed them to their correct destinations.

Demolition work on this old site is nearly finished, but its military usage will soon return stronger and more powerfully than ever before. Around €15 million has been invested into building a next-generation SATCOM base here, which will be substantially larger and feature four new radomes of a similar size to the one that rested here before. When construction is complete, it will reportedly be one of the most important communications centres in Europe.

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