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Satellite Hub

At a remote Arctic station, engineers help transmit data from satellites to scientists

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT the challenges of operating technical equipment in a remote setting.

High in the arctic, on a small cluster of Norwegian islands known as Svalbard, hundreds of white domes rise up from the flat, bare landscape. Some of these structures are more than 13 meters (43 feet) across. All together, they house more than 120 antennas, which track hundreds of satellites orbiting Earth. These antennas form the heart of the Svalbard Satellite Station, known as SvalSat. They allow vital data to be transmitted from the satellites to scientists back on Earth.

Many of the satellites monitored by SvalSat collect detailed observations of Earth’s atmosphere, land, and seas for organizations like NASA, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the European Space Agency. These measurements and images are critical to understanding the growing effects of climate change on Earth and its inhabitants.

High in the Arctic, hundreds of white domes rise up from the flat, bare landscape. They’re on a small group of Norwegian islands known as Svalbard. Some of these domes are more than 13 meters (43 feet) across. Together, they house more than 120 antennas. These antennas track hundreds of satellites that orbit Earth. This is the Svalbard Satellite Station, known as SvalSat. Its antennas allow important data to be transmitted from the satellites to scientists on Earth.

SvalSat tracks many satellites that collect detailed data on Earth’s atmosphere, land, and seas. Organizations like NASA, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the European Space Agency use this data. Scientists need these measurements and images to understand the growing effects of climate change on Earth and its population.

REMOTE OUTPOST

The island on which SvalSat is located consists mostly of mountainous bare rock and tundra. In this type of environment, deeper layers of soil remain permanently frozen. Some vegetation grows along the ground, but there are no trees. Snow falls on almost half the days of the year. Temperatures remain below freezing most of the year, nudging a few degrees higher only briefly in the summer.

The remote setting and harsh weather make SvalSat a challenging place to work. But many people there appreciate both its mission and stark beauty. “I enjoy working with high-tech space-industry equipment in the wilderness of Svalbard,” says Finn-Aage Sivertsen, the station’s chief engineer. He works with a team of nearly 40 engineers, plus support staffers, who keep SvalSat running around the clock.

SvalSat’s island is mostly mountainous bare rock and tundra. In this environment, deeper layers of soil are frozen year-round. Some plants grow along the ground, but there are no trees. Snow falls on almost half the days of the year. Temperatures remain below freezing most of the year. They rise a few degrees only briefly in the summer. 

SvalSat is remote, and its weather is harsh. That makes it a challenging place to work. But many people there value its mission and raw beauty. “I enjoy working with high-tech space-industry equipment in the wilderness of Svalbard,” says Finn-Aage Sivertsen, the station’s chief engineer. He works with a team of nearly 40 engineers, plus support staffers. They keep SvalSat running around the clock.

ANNA FILIPOVA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

DISH DOMES: Each white dome houses an antenna dish for communicating with satellites. The domes protect the dishes from wind and snow.

When new staff members arrive at the isolated station, they receive survival training covering topics like first aid, avalanche awareness, and the use of rifles to scare away polar bears. Station workers live in the town of Longyearbyen, home to a few thousand people, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. The commute to and from the station isn’t always smooth. “During times when the wind picks up and a lot of snow is blowing, we close the road leading to the station,” says Sivertsen. That minimizes the risk of anyone being harmed in an avalanche. Station crew keep a few weeks’ supply of food, water, and essentials on hand for such occasions. There’s also a generator for emergency power. In a pinch, helicopters can transport people and supplies in or out.

New staff members at the remote station receive survival training. They learn first aid, avalanche awareness, and the use of rifles to scare away polar bears. Station workers live in the town of Longyearbyen, home to a few thousand people. It’s about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. The trip to work at the station or go home afterward isn’t always smooth. “During times when the wind picks up and a lot of snow is blowing, we close the road leading to the station,” says Sivertsen. That lowers the risk of an avalanche hurting anyone. Station crew keep a few weeks’ supply of food, water, and important items for times like that. They have a generator for emergency power. If needed, helicopters can move people and supplies in or out.

TOP OF THE WORLD

There’s a good reason for SvalSat’s Arctic location, just 1,200 km (746 mi) from the North Pole. The spot provides excellent access to satellites in polar orbit. These satellites follow a path that passes over both poles as they circle the planet. Polar orbiting spacecraft make about 14 trips around Earth per day.

SvalSat is just 1,200 km (746 mi) from the North Pole. There’s a good reason for its Arctic location. In this spot, it can easily connect to satellites in polar orbit. As these satellites circle the planet, they pass over both poles. Polar orbiting spacecraft make about 14 trips around Earth each day.

ANNA FILIPOVA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

ON DUTY: Station engineers must dress for harsh Arctic weather—and keep an eye out for polar bears.

At lower latitudes, farther from the poles, a satellite station can connect to a polar-orbiting satellite several times a day. But because of Earth’s rotation, the station will eventually drift out of range. As the planet turns, the low-latitude station moves with it, until Earth blocks the connection between the satellite and the station.

A station situated closer to the top or bottom of Earth, on the other hand, can connect to satellites in polar orbits on every trip they make, as they continually pass overhead. SvalSat, operated by the Norwegian company Kongsberg Satellite Services, is one of just two stations in the world with this capability—the other is in Antarctica, 2,004 km (1,245 mi) from the South Pole.

Some satellite stations are at lower latitudes, farther from the poles. They can connect to a polar-orbiting satellite several times a day. But because of Earth’s rotation, the stations will move out of range over time. As the planet turns, a low-latitude station moves with it. At some point, Earth blocks the connection between the satellite and the station.

A station closer to the top or bottom of Earth is different. It can connect to satellites in polar orbits on every trip they make. SvalSat is one of just two stations in the world that can do this. It’s operated by the Norwegian company Kongsberg Satellite Services. The other station is in Antarctica, 2,004 km (1,245 mi) from the South Pole.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Some basic operations of SvalSat rely on automation. Computer systems track the arrival of each target satellite and aim an antenna at the right spot. Once a satellite comes into range, “the antenna locks on to the radio signal coming from it and follows along as the satellite moves,” says Sivertsen. For about 15 minutes, the satellite sends down images or data it has collected (see Transmitting Data, above).

The station’s data center converts the satellite’s data into computer files. These files are sent to scientists and satellite operators around the world. During its brief journey over SvalSat, a satellite may also receive commands from the ground. For example, a satellite’s operators may want to change how often it snaps photos. The data download process repeats more than 3,500 times a day as the station connects with hundreds of satellites whizzing overhead. In some cases, multiple satellites fly by simultaneously, each tracked by a different antenna.

Some of SvalSat’s basic operations run on automation. Computer systems track the arrival of each target satellite. They aim an antenna at the right spot. When a satellite comes into range, “the antenna locks on to the radio signal coming from it and follows along as the satellite moves,” says Sivertsen. The satellite has been collecting images and data. For about 15 minutes, it sends them down (see Transmitting Data, above).

The station’s data center turns the satellite’s data into computer files. These files go to scientists and satellite operators around the world. As it passes over SvalSat, a satellite may also receive commands from the ground. For example, a satellite’s operators may want to change how often it snaps photos. Each day, the station connects with hundreds of satellites zipping overhead. The data download process repeats more than 3,500 times a day. Sometimes, multiple satellites fly by at the same time. A different antenna tracks each one.

WATCHING OUR PLANET

SvalSat tracks many meteorological satellites, which take images of cloud formations to monitor the development and movement of storms. Countries around the world use these images for weather forecasting.

SvalSat tracks many meteorological satellites. They take images of clouds to watch the development and movement of storms. Countries around the world use these images to forecast weather.

ANNA FILIPOVA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

INSTALLATION: Workers position a new dome.

SvalSat also tracks Earth-observing satellites. These spacecraft collect data and images that reveal details of our planet’s surface and atmosphere. Scientists use these satellites to observe things like vegetation, concentrations of various gases in the air, and the surface temperatures of the oceans.

The information gathered by Earth-observing satellites helps researchers understand the effects of climate change. Long-term weather patterns on Earth are changing as the average global temperature rises. As the atmosphere gets hotter, glaciers and ice sheets are melting. Meltwater from these sources pours into the ocean, causing sea levels to rise and coastlines to become submerged or eroded away. Scientists rely on satellites to observe these changes and create detailed models for making predictions about conditions in the future (see Eyes on Earth, below). Climate change can also worsen storms, heat waves, droughts, and wildfires—all of which SvalSat helps track.

Because of the importance of satellite data to scientific research and forecasting, the engineers of SvalSat must ensure that the station can do its job 24 hours a day. That means quickly fixing any problems that arise with the power systems, antennas, or data center. “We work hard to keep outages to a minimum,” says Sivertsen. “It’s an ongoing challenge—but that’s part of what makes this such a special place.”

SvalSat also tracks Earth-observing satellites. These spacecraft collect data and images of our planet’s surface and atmosphere. Scientists use them to observe things like plant life, the amounts of different gases in the air, and the temperature of the ocean surface.

Earth-observing satellites gather information that helps researchers understand the effects of climate change. The average global temperature is rising, and long-term weather patterns on Earth are changing. As the atmosphere gets hotter, glaciers and ice sheets are melting. Their meltwater flows into the ocean. That causes sea levels to rise and coastlines to flood or erode away. Scientists need satellites to observe these changes. Then they can create detailed models to predict conditions in the future (see Eyes on Earth, below). Climate change can also worsen storms, heat waves, droughts, and wildfires. SvalSat helps track all of that.

Satellite data is very important to scientific research and forecasting. So the engineers of SvalSat must make sure that the station can do its job 24 hours a day. They quickly fix any problems that come up with the power systems, antennas, or data center. “We work hard to keep outages to a minimum,” says Sivertsen. “It’s an ongoing challenge—but that’s part of what makes this such a special place.” 

CONSTRUCTING EXPLANATIONS: Explain in your own words why SvalSat is well positioned to connect with polar-orbiting satellites.

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