NSF looks to COMSATCOM to bolster bandwidth to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station

 The moon shines over McMurdo Station during June 2014 when there is a 24-hour darkness during the winter. (Photograph By: Andrew Smith, National Science Foundation)
The moon shines over McMurdo Station during June 2014 when there is a 24-hour darkness during the winter. (Photograph By: Andrew Smith, National Science Foundation)

In April, the National Science Foundation (NSF) released a request for information (RFI) designed to solicit information about the possible acquisition of commercial satellite communications (COMSATCOM) services for its Antarctic presence at McMurdo Station. The RFI is intended to gather information necessary for the NSF to make a decision between the purchase of COMSATCOM services versus other potential avenues for increasing the bandwidth available to the station in the most effective and cost efficient manner.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Patrick D. Smith, the Manager of Technology Development, Polar Research Support at the NSF, to discuss why the agency is in need of COMSATCOM to the station, what kind of services and data will cross commercial networks and why this data is so important to Americans.

Here is what Mr. Smith had to say:

GovSat Report: Why is the NSF looking to upgrade the satellite equipment at McMurdo Station? What new bandwidth requirements make updating this equipment necessary? How much are bandwidth requirements increasing?

Mr. Smith: The NSF has two major motivations for modernizing its satellite communications for McMurdo Station:

1) To address concerns by the 2012 external review panel that indicated the current remote satellite communications earth station complex at Black Island (the Black Island Telecommunications Facility) represented a single point failure in the USAP logistics infrastructure, and that the expense to address facility modernization and resiliency would be high.

2) To accommodate the increasing pressure for increased NSF USAP mission communications (all based on IP networking) and those of strategic US Government tenant-partners at McMurdo (NOAA/JPSS) in response to the partners’ future data communications requirements.

GovSat Report: What type of information do the satellites downlinking information to McMurdo Station send? Why is this information important to the U.S. government and American citizens?

Mr. Smith: For the NSF, the communications support all facets of mission operations for the U.S. Antarctic Program. The basic categories of information flow are science data, science sponsored educational outreach data – including video, blog postings, digital photography- logistics data, aviation operations data – including weather forecasting, flight following, aircraft maintenance- supply/inventory data, medical data and telemedicine for clinic operations, personnel deployment management data, and morale/welfare personal communications. Typical services include Voice-over-IP telephone service, general Internet access, secure file transfer (SFTP), remote access, electronic mail, instant messaging, video conferencing, etc.

For the NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the affiliated sub-tenants it sponsors – including NASA, U.S. Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, and EUMETSAT – the primary objective is the low latency transmission of data collected in McMurdo from polar low earth orbit (LEO) environmental monitoring satellites – weather satellites.

The designs of these satellites call for direct transmission of stored data to ground receiving sites. Satellites must hold data acquired until an overflight of a ground receiving station. Limitations in the size of on-board data storage – both older generation tape recorders and current generation digital memory storage – place constraints on the amount of data a satellite can acquire before exceeding storage capacity. Until recently, very few polar LEO ground stations were operating in the Southern Hemisphere, causing large gaps in time between opportunities for a satellite to off-load its data store to the ground for onward routing to processing centers.

McMurdo has a unique location in that it is the farthest south location that has the scope and scale of logistical operation and human presence that can support polar LEO satellite data recovery of the type NOAA and its sub-tenants require. McMurdo’s geolocation has an antipodal symmetry with a large scale data receiving operation in Svalbard in the Northern Hemisphere.  By leveraging both McMurdo and Svalbard, a polar LEO satellite may cut in half the time between first collecting data and off-loading to the ground for data processing.

The logo of the National Science Foundation painted onto the top of a fuel tank at McMurdo Station. (Photograph By: Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation)
The logo of the National Science Foundation painted onto the top of a fuel tank at McMurdo Station. (Photograph By: Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation)

The most important role of the polar weather satellites is to provide global observations of vertical atmospheric temperature and moisture profiles to feed the global numerical weather forecast models, which in turn underpin the “3-7 day-ahead” forecasts of severe weather, which give emergency managers and the public the lead time to prepare, protect and enable faster recovery. Over 80% of the data feeding these models is from the polar satellites, and reduced latency provides better coverage for the models to improve the forecasts.

This is an important capability for both NOAA and its international counterpart EUMETSAT to utilize polar environmental satellite data for improving the accuracy of medium range forecasts, such as the projected storm tracks of major hurricanes that threaten population centers in the U.S. Polar environmental satellite data recovery and rapid relay to the U.S. thus has a contribution to make to the safety and economic well-being of U.S. citizens.

GovSat Report: Why is the station at McMurdo so essential for acquiring this data? What does the Antarctic location bring to the table?

Mr. Smith: The key advantage is the extreme southern latitude of McMurdo that is still within reach of conventional geosynchronous communications satellites.  The types of satellite data collection that McMurdo supports for NOAA (and NASA, USAF, EUMETSAT) are in near-polar orbits that have a period of approximately 100 minutes – it takes approximately 100 minutes for a satellite to travel around the Earth once, circling from pole to pole.  McMurdo is sufficiently to the south that it can see one of these satellites every time it flies over the Antarctic continent, allowing it to collect data 14 times per day.

By contrast, if a ground station were located in the continental U.S., it would see only about four overflights per day, coming in groups of two overflights back-to-back that are then separated by approximately 12 hours from the next grouping. This effect stems from the rotation of the Earth under the satellite’s orbit. Being so close to the Earth’s axis of rotation, McMurdo is able to keep the satellite orbit in view throughout the 24 hour rotation of the Earth on its axis.

GovSat Report: In our next article on the GovSat Report, we’ll feature part two of our two-part Q&A, when Mr. Smith discusses the challenges that the Antarctic location of McMurdo Station creates for the delivery of COMSATCOM, why the agency is still interested in COMSATCOM despite these challenges and the schedule for getting increased bandwidth and a new satellite earth station operational in McMurdo.

For more information about the NSF’s RFI for COMSATCOM services, request the SES Space and Defense RFI response by emailing info@sessd.com

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