Demand for data

After upgrade, SDL’s satellite testing program takes off
By Kim Burgess
The Herald Journal
August 4, 2008

Alan Murray/Herald Journal
Space Dynamics Laboratory employee Matt Sorensen works on the SDL transfer radiometer, a calibration device used to measure the characteristics of infrared light, at the Space Dynamics Lab in North Logan on Wednesday.

Business is booming at Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Lab, which recently spent $5.7 million upgrading equipment used to test satellites and other remote sensors before they are launched.

By improving its facilities, SDL has more than doubled the number of satellite tests it can take on, and as a result requests for the service have tripled, according to Deon Dixon, SDL’s calibration program manager.

The tests, known as calibrations, require highly specialized machinery that examines a satellite’s response to a simulation of space. By subjecting the satellite to a vacuum, cold temperatures and other harsh conditions, engineers can see if it will make accurate measurements once it has left the earth.

Demand for the tests is strong.

Currently, SDL is running four major calibration projects. Previously the organization could manage one or two at the same time, Dixon said.

Many of the equipment upgrades were made in January, though a few won’t be done until early fall.

“We determined that investing in this is a good business model,” Dixon said, explaining that few government or private aerospace companies have all the equipment needed to perform the tests.

Instead, the companies generally pay an outside firm, like SDL, to do the work, which costs a few thousand to millions of dollars.

Joe Tansock, SDL’s calibration group supervisor and senior engineer, explained that the price tag reflects calibration’s importance.

“Good calibration is crucial to a mission’s success,” he said.

In other words, if an instrument’s measurements are off, the data it collects is wrong.

Tansock also noted that the calibration tests have become more complex as satellites are developed that must make extremely precise calculations.

In the past, SDL has worked on sensors that examine the earth’s upper atmosphere and others that monitor ocean temperatures. The information will provide baseline measurements for scientists studying global climate change.

On some projects, SDL is consulted early in the design process to provide suggestions on improving calibration, Tansock explained.

SDL developed its expertise after spending 40 years conducting the tests on the remote sensors it built inhouse.

“We’ve become a leader in the field,” Tansock said.

Since 1990, SDL has held an annual calibration conference, which boosts its profile.

Of SDL’s 100 engineers, 12 work on calibration.