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Space Blog

Will volcanic ash affect satellite communications?

This week, an enormous cloud of volcanic ash is sweeping over Northern Europe, grounding aeroplanes and bringing the jet-setters to a standstill. One could be forgiven for taking it all for a hoax "“ there’s nothing for the common Earth dweller to see "“ but it’s bringing some businesses to a standstill as they struggle to make their meeting’s commitments. The reason this ash cloud cannot be seen is that the ash cloud is moving relatively high in the atmosphere, although meteorologists say there are signs some dust is settling at lower levels, which could begin affecting the health of those with respiratory conditions such as asthma. However the risk to aircrafts is very real as reported in the excellent BBC News online article: Icelandic volcanic ash alert grounds UK flights
NASA image by Robert Simmon, using ALI data from the EO-1 team. Instrument: EO-1 - ALI
But what about satellite communications? Could the dust in the atmosphere affect the control of space missions, your Sky receiver or GPS? Pete Garner, SSTL’s Radio Frequency (RF) team leader commented:
Satellite comms could easily be affected, but the impact would depend primarily on weather conditions, which would determine how the volcanic ash is dispersed in the air.
Additionally - it would also depend upon the robustness of the comms links in question. I know personally that my Sky signal degrades or even drops out periodically if there is heavy rain in our area and the volcanic ash could cause similar problems as the density and composition of the ash cloud would reduce the link margin and therefore affect the quality of any transmitted signals.
SSTL tracks and controls many satellites from its Guildford-based ground station, but Pete explained that their systems are designed to cope with environmental factors "“ even if no-one expects clouds of volcanic ash over the green hills of Surrey:
SSTL ensures its LEO [Low Earth Orbit] comms links are robust enough to cope with heavy rain in most cases by sizing the whole comms system appropriately for the mission including environmental factors. Making sure there is adequate additional margin in the link budget design is a key factor from the early stages of any mission to ensure SSTL can continually control the satellites and obtain the important image data when required.
In some cases there is also a level of redundancy. For example, Earth observation satellites such as Nigeria’s new NigeriaSat-2 satellite that is scheduled for launch in Q4 2010 have the facility to download images to multiple groundstations around the world. Some satellites can also be tracked and controlled from more than one groundstation when required.





16 April 20100 Comments1 Comment

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