Spread over a plateau on an island in the Norwegian High Arctic, the 100 geodesic domes of the Svalbard satellite station look like abstract mushrooms growing in the snowy landscape.
From the outside, not much is happening. But each dome houses a satellite dish, which spins to life throughout the day and night, precisely targeting the satellites as they rise above the horizon and stay locked on to them when they are. arching across the sky. In the minutes before the satellite plunges below the opposite horizon, software commands can be sent and data is almost certainly sent down.
SvalSat, as the station is called, is an essential behind-the-scenes tool that supports scientific research. Located just outside the town of Longyearbyen in the Svalbard Archipelago, it is 800 miles from the North Pole, making it the northernmost satellite station in the world.
It is also one of the biggest. The station’s 100 antennas, some measuring up to 42 feet in diameter, track more than 3,500 passes each day by several hundred satellites, including many Earth observation satellites that are essential for studying the impacts of climate change. .
Among them are the two satellites active for Landsat, the joint program of NASA and the United States Geological Survey that provides images of shrinking glaciers, changing forests, coastal erosion and other symptoms of warming. climate.
SvalSat also tracks many other satellites, including those from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel program, which is similar to Landsat, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Suomi NPP spacecraft, which measures sea surface temperatures. , the amount of solar energy reflected by the Earth and many other climate-related variables.
These and other Earth observation satellites are in polar orbits, rotating from pole to pole about every hour and a half. Some orbits are synchronous with the sun, which means that the satellite passes over every point on the surface at the same time relative to the sun. This is particularly useful for satellite imagery because the angle at which the sun illuminates the Earth is consistent for each image.
Satellites are linked to more than one ground station around the world to provide coverage in their orbits. But SvalSat’s high-latitude location gives it an edge over the others, said Maja-Stina Ekstedt, station manager.
Due to the Earth’s rotation, a station at the equator, for example, which might have been aligned with a satellite’s orbit as the satellite passed through the pole, would have turned far west, out of sight of the spacecraft as it passed overhead.
Being at such a latitude, however, SvalSat would have rotated relatively little, remaining within range. The station can connect to a polar orbiting satellite on each of the approximately 15 passes it typically makes every day.
“This is what makes Svalbard unique,” said Ms. Ekstedt. “We can download data and send them orders every time they place.”
As a result, the station downloads a lot of data, which is transported under the sea to the Norwegian mainland by fiber optic cables.
SvalSat has a control room for managing the antennas, some of which manage the passages of different satellites a few minutes apart, and for sending and receiving signals. A control room in Tromso, a Norwegian port 500 miles to the south that houses the company that runs SvalSat, Kongsberg Satellite Services, can also operate the station. (The company operates around 100 ground stations around the world, including a high-latitude one, Troll, on the Antarctic coast which is smaller and cannot transmit data at high speeds.)
Ms. Ekstedt manages a staff of around 40 people who operate the antennas and repair and maintain the equipment. While domes are transparent to radio waves, snow can degrade signals. So, in a place that lasts an average of 170 days with snow per year, cleaning the exterior of the domes is a frequent task.
The weather can also affect access to the resort itself. Although it is only about 10 km from the center of Longyearbyen, the station is at the end of a long, steep road.
“Just driving here can be very interesting,” said Ms. Ekstedt. “Every day in winter, we monitor the weather very closely due to the difficult driving conditions and the danger of avalanches.” If heavy snowfall accumulates on the road, all but those operating the satellites can evacuate the site before the road becomes completely impassable. Sometimes workers have to be transported by helicopter.
Ms Ekstedt and her family have lived in Longyearbyen for a decade. Although it only has a population of 2,500, there are many cultural activities and virtually limitless opportunities for outdoor recreation. “We’re a bit spoiled here,” she said.
And they work in a place that plays an important role in supporting science. “It’s really amazing to understand what you’re a part of,” Ms. Ekstedt said, “when you know what all of this imagery and data is being used for in the world.”