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Radar dish and men
Photo Credit: Steve Martaindale
Anthony Powell, satellite communications tech, and Cleve Cleavelin, McMurdo IT operations manager, look over the old NASA dish that will be used to transmit data for NPOESS on a recent visit to Black Island near McMurdo Station.

McMurdo key link in satellite system

NPOESS will monitor global environment

McMurdo Station will be a key link in a new environmental satellite system that will not only benefit meteorological forecasting and climatic research but also triple the local bandwidth for communications by as early as January 2008.

President Bill Clinton initiated the creation of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) in May 1994. NPOESS will merge existing polar satellite systems operated by the Department of Commerce and the Department of Defense.

The new polar satellite system will monitor global environmental conditions, as well as collect and disseminate data related to weather, atmosphere, oceans, and land and near-space environments, according to the NPOESS Web site. 

“The NPOESS satellite program has been declared as vital to the economic interests of the United States – for example, weather forecasting – and the NSF can leverage its unique role as manager of the national Antarctic program to provide added value to the country from the equally unique, high southern latitude of McMurdo Station,” said Pat Smith, Technology Development Manager with the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs.

The Integrated Program Office (IPO), made up of representatives from NASA and the departments of Defense and Commerce, manages the program.

Work at McMurdo

What all that means at McMurdo Station, at least in the short term, is that the bandwidth for phone, e-mail and Internet communications will go from the current 3 megabits per second to 10 megabits by January 2008 if all goes as planned.

The project will involve the installation of two receptor earth stations in the hills above McMurdo for the downlink from the NPOESS satellites.

Improvements to NSF’s satellite communications with McMurdo are needed to support the large amounts of data that must be quickly delivered to the United States, according to Smith. This requires improvements to the two Black Island satellite communications earth stations.

“The 10-megabit communication upgrade will occur before the receptor installation, allowing NSF an early increase of capability,” Smith said via e-mail. “A second, higher speed upgrade to 60 megabits (out) and 20 megabits (in) will occur in time to support receptor operations by 2012. NSF will receive 10 megabits (out) and 19 megabits (in) with the final configuration.”

Don Buckalew, the Denver-based Raytheon Polar Services Co./IT project manager, is responsible for executing the project as outlined in a memorandum of agreement between the National Science Foundation and the IPO. Buckalew and members of the NPOESS IPO were here in McMurdo earlier this season conducting site survey work and other needed preparation planning for the project.

McMurdo will be a primary receiver site because of the proximity of the polar orbits, according to Cleve Cleavelin, McMurdo IT operations manager. He said the NPOESS project is a great opportunity for the USAP to upgrade its communications at a relatively low cost to the program.

“The download [from the NPOESS satellites] we have to do is very high speed,” Cleavelin said. “The whole project is geared around NPOESS.”

The satellites

The NPOESS satellites will downlink stored mission data to about 15 globally distributed, receive-only Ka-band ground receptor sites at 150 megabits per second, according to a press release from Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the project.

Most of the receptors are interconnected and linked to data processing centers in the continental United States (CONUS) by commercial fiber optic networks. The exception is McMurdo Station, which must use a satellite to transmit the data to CONUS. The centers process the raw data and send it to users. The data centers will receive about 77 percent of the raw data gathered by the satellites in less than 15 minutes, compared to the two to three hours of the current systems, according to Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman is responsible for the overall system design and development. Raytheon Company, the parent of Raytheon Polar Services Co., is providing the ground system for NPOESS and system engineering support.

Initially, two NPOESS satellites, each equipped with different sensor configurations, will orbit Earth in separate polar orbital planes, and will come within range of McMurdo approximately every 100 minutes. The program may add two additional satellites in the future. The European Meteorological Operational (METOP) satellites, provided by the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, will also augment the system.

Nine advanced sensors – some new, some improvements on existing sensors – are currently being designed and built by teams of domestic and international companies for the NPOESS satellites. NPOESS will produce 39 separate environmental data records.

Helping science

“It’s coming to fruition, slowly but surely it is,” said Matthew Lazzara, a meteorological researcher for the University of Wisconsin Madison, who is familiar with NPOESS.

The university operates a wide-ranging network of automatic weather stations around the continent. These stations measure surface wind, pressure, temperature and humidity. Some of them also track other atmospheric variables such as snow accumulation. The data from the stations are used in weather forecasting, climatology records and general research purposes.

The university also manages the Antarctic Meteorological Research Center, which creates and collects a variety of Antarctic and Southern Hemisphere meteorological data for local research, education and operations. Charles Stearns is the principal investigator on both projects.

“The big benefit of NPOESS [to McMurdo] will be this communication capability that’s added to the station,” Lazzara said.

NPOESS will also have comparable abilities to the NASA Earth Observing Systems, a series of polar-orbiting satellites for long-term global observations of the land surface, biosphere, solid Earth, atmosphere and oceans. Those satellites, Lazzara said, can track winds in the upper atmosphere and even provide information on water vapor features.

“It gives you information that you wouldn’t get from a weather balloon otherwise,” Lazzara said. “Those kinds of things … we’re hoping to do with NPOESS.”

Lazzara relies on satellite imagery for his own research, which includes a study on the types of fog that roll through the Ross Island region. “Fog is understudied in the Antarctic. No one is studying it at all,” Lazzara said. “It’s a big deal when you’re a pilot flying here.”

The next step

The skies seem pretty clear for the next stage of the NPOESS project here. Parts for the first Black Island communications upgrade will be on the re-supply vessel, due to arrive in early February. Next season, the first Black Island communications upgrade will be to an old 7.2-meter-diameter dish formerly used by NASA but transferred to the NSF.

It seems only appropriate that NPOESS make use of the historic antenna as the USAP enters into a new era of communications.

“This was the antenna that first provided Internet and standard phone service to McMurdo and was commissioned in 1992,” Smith said. “I believe that McMurdo enjoys the distinction of being the first Antarctic station with a modern Internet protocol … plus it was the farthest south commercial satellite earth station in operation.”

Once it is ready, technicians will switch McMurdo’s primary satellite communications to the new 7.2-meter antenna and shut down the 11-meter dish that currently provides primary satellite communications for McMurdo, explained Joe Paciaroni, the Raytheon Company NPOESS system engineer.

“This swap will also have McMurdo switch satellite service providers to permit the high communications speeds planned with the size of the existing Black Island earth stations,” Paciaroni said.

The changeover should be painless, according to Cleavelin.

“We flip a switch … and it will be a bump in the night,” he said, admitting that the feat is more complicated than it sounds. “There’s a lot of engineering and work that goes into it.”

NSF funded research in this story: Charles Stearns, University of Wisconsin Madison.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs