Satellite centre scores with Nasa

18 June 2002

Immediately after Nasa’s Space Infrared Telescope Facility launches in January 2003, mission planners anticipate a four-hour communication gap during which their tracking system won’t be able to “talk’ to the observatory.

This could be a nerve-wracking time for those at the US space and aeronautic agency who’ve worked so hard on the mission, an infrared telescope that will study the early universe, old galaxies and forming stars, and detect dust disks around stars where planets may be forming.

The solution to their problem lies with South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Satellite Applications Centre, a satellite tracking facility located in Hartebeesthoek, 60 kilometres north of Johannesburg. The Satellite Applications Centre will track the Space Infrared Telescope Facility for up to four hours, or until the Deep Space Network’s tracking station near Madrid, Spain, acquires a signal.

“No one wants to sit on pins and needles for four hours,” said Pat Beyer, telecommunications and mission systems manager for the Space Infrared Telescope Facility at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “So we contracted with Hartebeesthoek . to fill in the gap.”

US-based technology giant Lockheed Martin has selected the CSIR Satellite Applications Centre (SAC) as a satellite ground support station for two upcoming Nasa missions: the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) mission, and the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) mission.

The SAC’s X-band antenna that will track the space observatory in its launch phase over South African skies. (Photo: CSIR Satellite Applications Centre)

The SAC will track the spacecraft, relay information and send commands when required during the launch and early orbit phases, as well as render daily mission support. SORCE is expected be launched in December 2002 and last until 2008, while SIRTF will be launched in January 2003.

Piet van der Westhuizen, SAC’s business development manager, says the multi-million rand contract with the Lockheed Martin Consolidated Space Operations Office is significant both in terms of initiating business with Lockheed Martin and in terms of the importance of the missions.

“For us it represents a milestone in our progress to be recognised by the world’s top aerospace companies as a reliable, professional satellite ground support station”, Van der Westhuizen said.

Lockheed Martin, alongside Boeing – for whom the SAC will be supporting a host of Ku band satellites and launches with their new Delta IV rocket – are world-leading commercial aerospace companies.

The Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) will use the South African facility’s 5.4-metre and 12-metre antennae as critical back-up to Nasa’s Deep Space Network, which comprises satellite tracking stations at Robledo de Chavela, Spain, Canberra, Australia and Goldstone, California.

The SAC will be the first station to contact the spacecraft after it separates from the launch vehicle, and will be the only ground station providing coverage for the crucial first four hours of the flight to outer space. Thereafter, the station at Madrid will have visibility of the spacecraft, although the SAC will back them up for an additional seven hours of this critical phase.

The Space Infared Telescope Facility is the first new mission of Nasa’s Origins Programme, which strives to answer the questions: Where did we come from? Are we alone? It is also the fourth and last of Nasa’s Great Observatories, a programme that also includes the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

The Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) mission aims to provide Nasa’s Earth Science with precise measurements of solar radiation. The satellite will orbit the Earth at an altitude of 640 kilometres with four instruments on board, which will greatly improve the accuracy of the measurements of solar energy.

This data will be downloaded at the SAC and sent to Nasa daily, where it will be used by scientists to model solar output and to explain and predict the effect of the sun’s radiation on the Earth’s atmosphere and climate.

The satellite will be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The SAC is set to establish contact with the satellite approximately 40 minutes later as it passes over Africa.

With only eight months before the first of the two launches, the SAC’s system engineers will be working non-stop to complete a new S-band uplink antenna and support systems to ensure 100% system compatibility and mission readiness. “Reliability is the key word for operators of multi-billion dollar air-borne technology. Our impeccable track record in this respect swung the deal our way. Now the pressure is on us to maintain this track record”, says Van der Westhuizen.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is the largest research, development and implementation technology agency in Africa, with a track record spanning more than 50 years.

The Satellite Applications Centre has been managed by the CSIR since 1958. From 1960 to 1975 it was known as the “Jo’burg Minitrack Station” and became part of Nasa’s worldwide scientific satellite tracking and telemetry network, operated by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

It then became part of the French National Space Agency’s (le Centre National d’Études Spatiales) worldwide tracking network. Since 1989, it has been a programme within the CSIR’s Information, Communications and Technology division.

SouthAfrica.info reporter. Sources: Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

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