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Black Island Telecommunications Facility
Photo Credit: Doug Whiteley
The Black Island communications facility near McMurdo Station. Upgrades to satellite antennas have significantly increased the bandwidth available to the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is hosting a key receptor site at McMurdo for a new weather and climate satellite system that must move large amounts of data back to the United States.

Broad connection

New communications upgrade benefits USAP, national weather satellite program

The U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site got a major communications upgrade in 2009-10 thanks to ongoing work to establish a key satellite receptor site at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site for a new-generation weather and climate satellite system for the United States.

The upgrade of the satellite communications link at McMurdo Station’s Black Island Facility (BIF) will eventually support data rates of up to 60 megabits per second for off-continent communications to achieve near-real-time transfer of weather and climate data back to the United States. Inbound traffic will move at 20 megabits per second.

The space-based components of the new system will downlink stored mission data to 15 globally distributed ground receptor sites as part of a network called SafetyNetExternal U.S. government site Link to PDF file. Most of the receptors are interconnected and linked to data processing centers in the continental United States by commercial fiber optic networks. The exception is McMurdo, which must use an Australian-based satellite to transmit the data from the SafetyNet site to the United States.

The new weather and climate satellite system was originally called the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program External U.S. government site. Initiated by President Bill Clinton via a Presidential Decision Directive in 1994, the NPOESS program was designed to merge existing operational polar weather satellite systems operated by the Department of Commerce and the Department of Defense into a single, unified national system. The new system will monitor global environmental conditions, as well as collect and disseminate data related to weather, atmosphere, oceans, and land and near-space environments. [See previous article: Key link.]

However, the White House announced in February a restructuring of the NPOESS program.

Panoramic view of Black Island.
Photo Credit: Doug Whitely
A panoramic view of Black Island.
Dedication of 11-meter satellite on Black Island.
Photo Courtesy: Doug Whiteley
Dedication ceremony of the updated 11-meter antenna dish. Attendees included, from left, Richard DeLore, Joe Paciaroni, Bob Croke, David Hunstman, Tony Marchetti, Jennifer Morikawa and Doug Whiteley.

The decision dissolves the original tri-agency management agreement between the U.S. Air Force External Non-U.S. government site, NOAA and NASA External U.S. government site. NOAA and the Air Force will no longer continue to jointly procure the polar-orbiting satellite system. NOAA and NASA will take primary responsibility for the afternoon orbit and will develop a new satellite program on the civilian side, dubbed the Joint Polar Satellite System. The Air Force will take primary responsibility for the morning orbit and develop its own follow-on program for its part of the weather and climate satellite network.

The agencies will still work together in those areas that have been successful in the past, such as the shared SafetyNet ground system, according to Doug Whiteley, government Command, Control and Communications lead for the NPOESS program. 

“NOAA, NASA and DoD will continue to partner to ensure a successful way forward for the respective programs, while utilizing international partnerships to sustain and enhance weather and climate observations from space,” Whiteley said.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site, which manages the USAP, is collaborating with the other federal agencies that are developing the environmental satellite system by hosting the SafetyNet sites at McMurdo. The NPOESS Integrated Program Office and NSF Office of Polar Programs (OPP)  External U.S. government site initiated a Memorandum of Agreement in 2006 that defined the collaboration to host NPOESS satellite receiving earth stations (receptors) at McMurdo Station.

“NSF will transfer its NPOESS agreements and joint activities to the JPSS as its organization progresses over the coming months,” said Pat Smith, Technology Development manager with the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs External U.S. government site.

The installation of two SafetyNet receptors at McMurdo Station — one for redundancy in the harsh Antarctic conditions — creates “nice synergy” for all parties involved, according to Smith.

“NSF provides the national reach and presence on the continent of Antarctica and utilizes high-capacity broadband satellite communications for the support of its program activity,” Smith explained. “NPOESS requires access and sustaining support in Antarctica in order to meet its mission goals, and it brings high-capacity broadband satellite communications capability as a resource. Two national programs sharing mission capabilities and resources create greater net value — a 1+1=3 effect — hence, the synergy,” Smith said.

While ground stations for SafetyNet are spread both north and south of the equator, McMurdo’s location at 77 degrees south latitude helps cut the time in half that the data get back to the processing centers in the United States, Whiteley explained.

In addition to supplying the location and existing infrastructure required for the receptor sites and off-continent satellite communications, the NSF also provided housing and logistics support to the ground system project, according to Smith. McMurdo Station, as the largest Antarctic base, offers all the amenities of a small town.

“We’re the logistics experts in the Antarctic. We know how to get stuff done. We know how to build stuff. We supply the power,” he said. 

SafetyNet Sites

Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Norway, Spain, South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, McMurdo, Japan, Guam, Hawaii, Chile and Brazil.

“All of this is leveraging the Antarctic logistics infrastructure that we have to run our science program, supporting these major, national programs that have benefits to the national economy,” he added. A 2008 government report estimates billions of dollars in direct economic benefits from jobs and procurements, as well as indirect benefits resulting from the data used for better weather and climate forecasting.

In return, the USAP will eventually reap 19 megabits for inbound data. Previous NPOESS upgrades bumped up both inbound and outbound data to 10 megabits per second, double earlier capabilities for both directions. “The inbound is where we have our bottlenecks,” Smith noted.

Added Whiteley: “We dramatically increased their bandwidth down there to allow them to do more.”

The space-based components will provide advanced environmental, weather and climate sensor observations, as well as key communications payloads that support search and rescue, environmental and wildlife data collection.

“The new system is vitally important and essential for climate research, as well as operational weather and storm forecasting for civil, military and international partners,” Whiteley noted.

Raytheon Company External Non-U.S. government site, a subcontractor on the project, was responsible for upgrading the two satellite earth station antennas on BIF — a 7.2-meter dish and 11-meter dish. The new system upgrade went into operations Jan. 9, 2010. It completes a four-year effort to modernize the electronics of the two large satellite communications antennas 20 miles from McMurdo.

“McMurdo is the toughest” place to work out of all the SafetyNet sites, even compared to Svalbard, Norway, which sits at about the same absolute latitude, Whiteley said. NSF’s assistance in establishing the network’s southern-most site was crucial to the success of the ground system, he added.

“It really worked out well for both of us,” Whiteley said. 

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