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On the ground in Kazakhstan

To keep our eyes on the skies, we install the ears on the ground.
We don’t just design, manufacture and operate spacecraft here at SSTL, we also provide a range of ground segment services for our customers and over the last two years we’ve been sending engineers out to Kazakhstan’s new satellite integration and test centre just outside the capital, Astana, to assist with the fit-out of the ground segment system that will be used to track and operate a medium earth observation satellite, KazMRES, manufactured by SSTL and which is due to launch very soon.

National Space Centre, Astana, Kazakhstan. Credit Kazakhstan Gharysh Sapary

Our first visit to site was made back in 2010 before construction work on the antenna towers took place when our team scanned the local environment for possible sources of interference - a ground station requires as little interference from other communications systems nearby that may be emitting signals on similar bandwidths, not so easy in a modern capital city environment!

Since then the ground segments team has been travelling out to site periodically to inspect the antenna tower’s construction quality and infrastructure services and advise on the fit-out requirements for installing the antenna, the ground station racks, and other communications equipment.

The tower structure is designed to accommodate an antenna and radome on the roof, with ground segment equipment and a mission control centre being housed in the main building about half a kilometre from the tower. It’s important that the tower is built to withstand the weight of the dish – the one we subcontracted for this mission has a radius of 6.1 metres and weighs approximately 4000 kg . The tower also needs an un-interruptable power supply and air-conditioning to keep the whole ground segment running efficiently in both the searing heat of summer and the freezing cold of Kazakh winters.

Everything on site checked out well, so we were able to move ahead with a site visit in August 2013 to assist with the installation of an antenna dish and radome, supplied by our Antenna subcontractor, CGC.


With the local weather conditions in mind, the dish and radome installation was conducted in August last year, when temperatures were a perfect 25°C. Installing a dish antenna can be a tricky operation, requiring a big crane and lots of patience over a period of 2-3 weeks! Our antenna contractor, CGC, are experts at installations, but all the same we send a member of our team out to assist and check that everything goes to plan. The reflector was lowered into position, and guided into fixings that will secure it to the pointing mechanism which allows the dish to track a satellite as it passes over in-orbit.

CGC engineer performing the delicate task of guiding the antenna dish into the mounting

The antenna fixed to the roof of the tower, before the radome is craned into position

We then conducted a series of tests to check the antenna is working properly – to do this, we used the new dish to track one of our own satellites, UK-DMC2, and to uplink commands and downlink telemetry data and image files to check the integrity of the whole system.

The completed antenna tower for KazMRES. Credit  Kazakhstan Gharysh Sapary

Our team were out on site again in January and February this year to make final preparations – and experienced for themselves the extremely harsh winter conditions in Astana. The temperatures dipped below -30°C and wind chill made it feel even colder. Our guys were kitted out in snow apparel, double gloves and balaclavas, and taking gloves off had to be timed at no more than 2 minutes to prevent frostbite! The engineers soon devised a tag system – one engineer doing 2 minutes work with bare hands, then putting his gloves back on, while a second engineer took over.

SSTL engineer kitted out for the cold

A snowy trudge through the snow along the access road to the tower site

There are in fact two antenna towers on the site, roughly one hundred metres apart – one to house the ground segment to operate a high resolution satellite, KazEOSat-1, manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space and the other to house the ground segment to operate KazMRES, the medium resolution satellite manufactured by SSTL. In fact, both ground segments, whilst configured differently are “cross-strapped”, which means that either tower can be used to talk to either satellite, providing a back-up service for periodic essential maintenance of the buildings, dishes or ground station racks.

The two completed antenna towers at Astana. Credit Kazakhstan Gharysh Sapary

Our team will be out in Astana again for the launch, and will working alongside the Kazakh engineers to pick up the first signals from KazMRES. The satellite will make 6 passes over the ground station every 24 hours and initially the team will be working a 24 hour rota to analyse the telemetry from each pass and uplink the commands that will turn on individual systems, until the spacecraft is fully commissioned and operational.

Watch out for news on the launch of KazMRES, coming to our website soon. 




 

 
 

 

 

09 June 20140 Comments1 Comment

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