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Some engineers at USU's Space Dynamics Lab are piloting their satellites from home

April 23, 2020 | Standard-Examiner

LOGAN – Ready to add yet another task to the list of jobs folks are successfully doing from home?

Thanks to the social distancing brought on by COVID-19, aerospace engineers based in Cache Valley are now “flying” satellites from the comfort of their own living rooms, bedrooms and home offices.

Small-satellite operators from Space Dynamics Laboratory are shown in this Jan. 17, 2020, photo at the controls of one of SDL's Mission Operations Center.

NASA's Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter CubeSat, or HARP, is one of two satellites currently being "flown" by Space Dynamics Laboratory operators from their homes in Cache Valley.

Flying satellites. From home.

Of the dozens of satellites that Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory has shepherded into orbit around the earth, two of them — NASA’s Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter CubeSat (HARP), and the Compact Infrared Radiometer in Space instrument satellite (CIRiS) — are now being piloted from engineers’ homes to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Tim Neilsen, a project manager for SDL, said a team of five professional operators and two student operators are working in parallel on the pair of missions. Whereas most of the company’s satellites are controlled in Mission Operations Centers at SDL’s North Logan facility, these two satellites are being guided remotely on engineers’ laptops and computers.

Neilsen is one of those working-from-home satellite pilots.

“Unfortunately, the truth is less glamorous than it sounds,” he laughs.

Disabuse yourself of the image of some maverick aerospace engineer — in bathrobe and bunny slippers — sitting on his couch and using a joystick to fly a satellite through space.

“It’s nothing at all like a joystick,” Neilsen said of “flying” a satellite. “There’s no PlayStation, no VR goggles. It’s just uplinking a script or list of commands to the satellite.”

And as for the bathrobe and slippers? Neilsen says his engineers are more likely to be wearing khakis and an SDL polo shirt.

The two satellites in question are “somewhat autonomous,” according to Neilsen, having what he called attitude determination and control. They can twist and turn themselves to reorient themselves, but can’t raise or lower their orbits.

“It’s kind of like the auto pilot on a commercial airliner,” Neilsen said. “There still needs to be a pilot who turns the knobs and set the controls, but we really only get three or four opportunities to ‘talk’ (to the satellite) a day.”

Each pass of the satellites over their communication dish — part of NASA ground-station equipment at Wallops Flight Facility in coastal Virginia — offers only a 10- or 15-minute window for communicating. During this time, engineers send up new instructions and retrieve recent data from the satellite.

“But basically, the connection terminates as soon as the spacecraft goes over the horizon,” Neilsen said.

So, just exactly how does one steer a satellite from one’s home? Neilsen said there’s already a secure network connection between SDL in Utah and Wallops in Virginia. So in order to make it possible for satellite operators to work from home, it was just a matter of getting equally secure connections between the SDL facility and the engineers’ homes. Not exactly rocket science.

The two satellites being piloted from engineers’ homes are quite compact — one about the size of a backpack, the other roughly shaped like one of those long, slender loaves of Wonder Bread, according to Neilsen.

“Twenty years ago, a small satellite was something that two people could lock arms around,” Neilsen said. “But there’s been a revolution in the satellite industry going on for the last 10 to 15 years, and that’s driven ‘small’ to a new definition. We usually call these ‘micro sats,’ or ‘nano sats’ if you’re going smaller than that. These would be considered nano satellites.”

The HARP satellite was built by SDL to carry a scientific payload built by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In technical-speak: “The objective of HARP is to validate the in-flight capabilities of a highly accurate and precise wide field of view hyper-angular polarimeter for characterizing aerosol and cloud properties,” according to a news release. “Additionally, HARP will demonstrate that CubeSat-size technology can provide science-quality multi-angle imaging data, paving the way for lower-cost aerosol-cloud instrument development.”

The CIRiS satellite, built by the Boulder, Colorado-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies, was designed to collect, process and calibrate infrared images of Earth to be used for a variety of scientific studies.

Neilsen says both satellites are quite new, having been deployed from the International Space Station within a few weeks of each other back in February.

Eric Warren is director of public relations for SDL. He’s understandably proud of his company’s accomplishments in the aerospace field.

“We like to say that Utah State University has put more things into space than any other university in the world,” Warren said. “SDL has been working with NASA for several decades now.”

Founded in 1959, Space Dynamics Laboratory works with the military, science and industry. Located about a mile off campus, SDL employs about 1,000 workers — mostly engineers — who work on space and tactical systems.

“But our swim lane is building cameras — both space-based and airborne cameras,” Warren explained.

Although headquartered in North Logan, the company has offices in New Mexico, Massachusetts, Ohio, Alabama, Texas, California, Virginia and Washington, D.C. It’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Utah State University and is one of 14 University Affiliated Research Centers.

“Logan, Utah, is the epicenter of small satellites,” Warren said. “I guess the safest way to quantify our numbers is that we’ve had 56 launches with NASA since 1982.”