Fairbanks, AK - People who frequent the trails on the campus of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks may have noticed lots of construction equipment all summer long. It’s part of a project at the Alaska Satellite Facility. The facility is getting a new antenna this year. In coming years, it will collect data from NASA’s polar orbiting satellites.
Men in hard hats and orange vests use a lift to reach the top an enormous, white satellite dish. It towers more than 65 feet above a popular trail system frequented by Fairbanks-area runners, walkers, skiers and bikers. An antennae sticks out like a thumb from the front of the huge dish. The men above string black wires through holes in the back. “They’re hooking up the trailer lights!”jokes Alaska Satellite Facility Supervisor Wade Albright laughs as he tips his head back and looks up. He says it’s like Christmas. “Oh yeah, absolutely, a new antenna is a very big deal.” There are two other antennas nearby. A large blue one was built on the roof of the University’s Geophysical Institute back in the 1990’s. A newer antenna stands only a few hundred feet down the trail from this brand new one. “So, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a new antenna,” says Albright.
There are three stations like this in the state, but the Alaska Satellite Facility is the only one of its kind operated by a University. It’s part of NASA’s global network of stations that gather information about the earth and its surroundings from satellites that pass overhead in low earth orbit. It’s called the Near Earth Network. Scott Arco is the Deputy Director. “It’s not like Voyager and Pioneer that are going out to the edge of the solar system, We’re talking to spacecraft that are looking through the atmosphere down to the surface of the earth.”
Satellites circle the earth roughly every 90 minutes. This new antenna will be able to track them for up to 15 minutes as they pass over Alaska. As they travel overhead, Arco says there’s plenty of information the new antenna will download. “We have spacecraft that are looking out at the sun measuring the physical properties of the sun, what’s coming to earth from the sun," says Arco. "We have spacecraft that are studying eh atmosphere, that are looking through the atmosphere that are looking at the auroras that are looking at particulates and aerosols in the atmosphere and then we have the spacecraft that are looking at the surface of the earth.”
Those collect all kinds of information: geology, soils, water, vegetation... Because this is a federally funded NASA project, that data is available to any scientist who wants to use it. But Arco says collecting data from a satellite doesn’t come without challenges. “The problem is when a spacecraft is downlinking data from its place in orbit, a lot of times it’s dumping a recorder that can never be rewound and so if that data is lost between the spacecraft and the ground, it’s never recovered and so you may have some piece of information in there that’s very important and if it’s not collected, it’s gone,” he says.
A control room inside a nearby building houses the equipment required to gather data from satellites. And there’s always someone present to make sure the antennas function properly. Wade Albright says two of the facility’s three antennas can send commands to the satellites as well. “So they can uplink to the satellites to change the telemetry to change the orbits to tell it to turn on.” Albright says the seven million dollar price tag for the new antenna is far less than the retrofits and upgrades the older antenna would require to do the same kinds of things. The new antenna is scheduled to be fully operational by December.