Listening to the arctic skies
A cold wind blows through the sharp, stark mountains towering over the narrow six-mile road that connects the tiny Norwegian village of Longyearbyen to an array of satellite receiving stations. On the island of Spitsbergen, part of an archipelago called Svalbard on the Arctic Circle, the polar bears outnumber the people, and NASA listens to the skies.
The Norwegian Space Centre, an independent foundation that serves as Norway's space agency, runs the satellite facility, called Svalsat. NASA owns two antennas there, and the Integrated Program Office (IPO), which includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Defense and Commerce departments, is building one. Three others serve the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites and a Norwegian firm called Kongsberg Satellite Services.
The traditional dish-shaped antennas are housed at Svalsat inside spherical enclosures to protect them from the elements. Although the warm Gulf Stream waters flow near Svalbard and keep the island chain warmer than other arctic locations, subzero temperatures are still common in the winter.
At the end of January, the Norwegian Space Centre will activate a 1,000-
kilometer (621-mile) loop of fiber-optic cable to connect the satellite facility to
the Norwegian mainland. It will boost data transmission rates and lower costs for the agencies that use the facility, making it more useful for NASA and NOAA research projects.
The fiber is already working, but the January ceremony will mark its formal lighting, said Bill Watson, program executive in NASA's Office of Earth Science.
Svalsat plays a critical role in both NASA and NOAA earth sciences projects. Situated at 70 degrees north latitude, receivers there can "see" polar-orbiting satellites every time they circle the planet, allowing them to download data on each pass.
"They paint a picture around the pole," Watson said. "From this location at Svalbard, you can see them as they pop over the pole. The satellites are recording data as they go around the world and they can dump that data into these antennae every orbit."
NASA has two satellites — Terra and Aqua — that are already sending data. A third, Aura, is due to start this summer. The agency's satellites measure atmospheric temperatures, land and sea temperatures, energy fluctuations and humidity. They also measure changes in ice formations, vegetation, sea levels and snow cover. It will use the new fiber to transmit half a terabyte of data a day to Norway and then to the United States over existing networks.
"One of the things NASA is trying to do is to look at Earth as a complete system," Watson said. NASA's Earth Science Enterprise includes the satellite-based Earth Observing System and other mission components.
The Svalsat facility is important because it can communicate with the satellites on all 14 of their daily orbits. There are similar receiving stations at Fairbanks, Alaska, and Wallops Island, Va., but they have blind spots, said John Overton, a senior project manager at the Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit corporation under contract to the IPO at NOAA. "There are three [orbits] you can't see," he said. "Svalbard enables you to see lengthy contacts on every orbit of the satellite." When the satellite passes without downloading data, getting good information becomes trickier on the next pass.
"An orbit is 101 minutes," Overton said. "So it would be another 101 minutes before you saw the spacecraft again. You have to order the spacecraft to resend the data you didn't get on the orbit before. So you have to get two orbits' worth of data in one contact, which is not always easy to do."
Also, weather information, one of NOAA's interests, is time-critical, he said. Two-hour-old information is not always useful in tracking fast-moving weather events.
"These are harsh locations," Watson said. "When you need a contact every orbit, if there is a breakdown, it helps to have an alternate location."
NOAA's National Polar Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System will also gather earth-science data. NOAA officials will launch a satellite in 2006 that will beam data to the receiver that will be built at Svalsat, Overton said.
The project's success is due in large part to a unique funding strategy NASA officials pursued with the help of financial firm Hannon Armstrong. The same approach could serve as a model for other agencies, said Jeffrey Eckel, the firm's president and chief executive officer.
"If they use this type of third-party funding approach to finance a new asset, they could put their budgets to better use while reaping the benefits the infrastructure improvements would bring," he said. "It's using private capital to save the public sector a ton of money."
The arrangement also inspires private investors to fund important science
projects that would not have a payback if done in the commercial market, he said. "There isn't a lot of money to be made on this system. This is government to government — a sensible thing to do."
Eckel hopes the idea will catch on with other agencies. "It can be used for any large infrastructure project," he said. "It's consistent with the Bush administration's desire for public/private partnerships."
Part of the fiber-optic data capacity is going to benefit the inhabitants of Longyearbyen, Watson added. "There are about 1,500 people that live there year-round. It's an economy in transition from coal mining to the Information Age."
About six years ago, the Norwegian government made the first overture to get NASA to build two satellite antennas at the site. "They came to NASA and offered it up as a solution," he said. "It was attractive to us to have another location that saw all the orbits in a day."
Location: Small chain of islands between the Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea, Greenland Sea and Norwegian Sea.
History: Discovered by the Norwegians in the 12th century. Served as an international whaling base during the 17th and 18th centuries. Norway officially took possession of the islands as a territory in 1925.
Climate: Arctic, tempered by Gulf Stream. Cool summers, cold winters. Mean temperature is minus 14 degrees Celsius (6.8 F) in February, and 5 degrees Celsius (41 F) in July.
Size: Slightly smaller than West Virginia. Glaciers and snow fields cover 60 percent of the land area.
Population: 2,811, with Norwegians representing 55.4 percent, and Russians and Ukrainians 44.3 percent.
Major industry: Coal mining.
Distance to North Pole: 1,231 kilometers (765 miles)
Sources: CIA World Fact Book, King's Bay AS