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Space Blog

"Mission Control Guildford, do you copy?"

Visitors to SSTL's HQ never cease to be amazed that there's a mini "Houston" mission control centre, right here in Surrey!
SSTL’s Satellite Operations Centre (aka Mission Control) is located in our Guildford HQ, and houses a control centre linked to two offsite ground stations. The facility contains all the infrastructure to command, control and downlink telemetry and payload data from SSTL orbiting satellites. The ground station comprises of a row of computer terminals, a TV monitor showing a live camera feed of the antenna dishes, a screen showing the current satellite positions, and a surprisingly compact set of equipment contained in a rack which quietly hums away in a corner of the room, processing data 24/7.

SSTL operates Mission Control in “lights-out” mode using our own “Pilot” Mission Control software suite, which is designed to require minimal operator intervention.

Data from one of SSTL's groundstations as it tracks NigeriaSat-2's pass over the UK. Click to enlarge.

90 seconds before the pass commences, computer scripts configure the ground station and position the antenna in readiness to track each satellite as it appears over the horizon and passes over the dish. Automated computer-controlled routines manage the exchange of data between the ground station and the satellite.

During a “pass”, one of our antennas will track the satellite for up to 12-15 minutes depending on its elevation, and the data exchanged between the ground and satellite typically comprises the uploading of schedule (“SKED) files to the spacecraft for satellite operations, and downloading payload data such as imagery files, and also telemetry data. Telemetry data covers everything from battery voltages and temperatures to the status of power switches, solar array currents, and wheel speeds. Our satellites can capture up to 400 channels of telemetry but on a typical pass around 100 channels of real time telemetry will be captured and displayed on one of the computer screens, giving us an instant snapshot of how the satellite is performing.

Typical telemetry screen, showing all spacecraft systems within normal parameters.  Click to enlarge.

We also routinely run specific Whole Orbit Data surveys to check for specific channels of telemetry at various sampling intervals, and can run custom surveys to investigate any anomalies identified on previous passes. Each telemetry parameter has an upper and a lower limit, and exceeding either of these limits triggers an alert – delivered in the form of a text message and email to the operator’s mobile phone. Mission support services are provided by SSTL 24/365, and if an alert is received outside of working hours the on-call operator can log in remotely to the ground station computers to make an assessment of the telemetry, and then travel in to Mission Control if necessary.

All the telemetry captured from our satellites is stored, enabling SSTL to build up a complete telemetry archive from launch to end of life, enabling trend-monitoring specific to each spacecraft to be performed. Trend monitoring is useful to spot slow degradation in system performance, thus allowing for corrections to be made to extend module life, or avert failure.

SSTL currently routinely track and command 4 spacecraft under our direct control via a managed service. We also monitor 9 customer-controlled satellites which can also be operated from our ground station if requested, for instance for anomaly resolution or when the customer’s own ground station is out of operation.

We occasionally use other ground stations, such as KSAT’s high-latitude station on Svalbard, a northerly Norwegian island. Up there, customers can take advantage of polar-orbiting satellites’ 15 passes per day over the poles, compared with 6 passes a day at UK latitudes.

KSAT's SvalSat groundstation at Svalbard, Norway. Image courtesy of KSAT.
The most intense use of our Mission Control centre is during the Launch and Early Operations Phase (LEOP), which encompasses achieving spacecraft stability after it has left the launch vehicle, and commissioning all the spacecraft’s systems until it is declared fully operational in-orbit. We’re excited to have launches of SSTL spacecraft coming up later in the year so check back with us and we’ll cover LEOP activities more fully in a later Blog.

You can watch James Northam, Head of Ground Segment and Mission Services, talking to BBC's Bang Goes the Theory presenter, Liz Bonin, about the process of commanding satellites in an episode about Flooding broadcast on 14 April 2014. 






15 April 20140 Comments1 Comment

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