What’s it like to operate a Satellite?

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When you sit down at your office computer, do you get to fly a satellite?

Just like the Space Shuttle or NASA’s Orion spacecraft, satellites need operators to help them safely navigate their orbits around the planet. From ground stations on Earth, a small cadre of satellite operators keeps these spacecraft flying and functioning.

At Lockheed Martin, our experts provide the initial command and control support to the Air Force for its Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF)  communications satellite system, before handing over the controls to Air Force operators who command the satellites on a day-to-day basis. The AEHF network provides rapid and protected communications for U.S. military and government personnel nearly anywhere on Earth.

A typical day for AEHF might include providing protected communications for the President of the United States or connecting deployed military personnel in a conflict zone with their commander.  AEHF satellite technology is so advanced that one AEHF satellite provides greater total communications capacity than the entire legacy five-satellite Milstar constellation it replaces.

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Shown here is an artist's rendering of a U.S. Air Force Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite in space.  

After launching a new satellite, Lockheed Martin’s experts provide technical on-console support to Air Force operations to navigate the satellite into its initial orbit. The next three months are spent maneuvering the space vehicle through the “orbit raising” phase until it reaches geosynchronous orbit at 35,786 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. That altitude almost covers the distance of a pole-to-pole lap around Earth. The operators then work through a rigorous month long testing schedule before transitioning operations to the customer.

Without skilled experts, satellites simply would not achieve their missions. To learn more on the ins and outs of a satellite operator, Kim Yamashiro and William Talbott broke down their everyday roles and challenges of operating a satellite critical to national security. Some of our operators’ answers have been condensed for clarity.

When you sit down at your desk what’s the first thing that you do?

The first thing we do is receive a briefing on the prior shift’s activities and the health status of the satellite.  Then we relieve the prior shift (satellite operations fulfill a 24/7/365 mission) and get individual handover for each satellite operator position.  In addition, we verify the status of the ground station, which provides communications with the satellite. Then we review the upcoming activities almost immediately after we finish handoff and ensure shift planning tasks are completed.

What sorts of elements are you operating from the satellite’s control station?

The operator workstation is comprised of three computer monitors responsible for the ground station, the satellite vehicle and executing procedures (command plans) on the satellite, respectively.  The satellite operator uses the command plan to send satellite command directly to the satellite. We use commands to start the execution of orbit and attitude maneuvers, deploy solar arrays by firing pyros (which are responsible for cutting cables allowing the wings to deploy), etc.   The other major task we perform from the workstation is monitoring satellite telemetry to ensure the safety and health of the satellite.

How do you work together to operate a satellite post-launch?

Satellite operations are a team effort. One controller is responsible for interfacing with satellite’s ground operations stations, ensuring successful communications from the ground to the satellite and vice versa. The second controller operates the satellite. They plan and execute commanding of the satellite, in addition to monitoring the spacecraft’s overall health.

What are your academic and professional backgrounds?

Kim: I earned my Business with Information Technology degree from Colorado Technical University. I began my 16-year career with Lockheed Martin as an intern.

Will: I graduated from University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and joined Lockheed Martin after graduation. I have been with the company for five years.

Any favorite parts about the job or advice for people who would like to operate a satellite?

This is a demanding, but fulfilling job. Our customer’s mission saves lives. Serving that mission as effectively as possible keeps us very engaged and motivated at work. Launch and pre-mission preparations are rigorous; however successful launches and subsequently handing off operations to the customer are very rewarding moments.

Our academic backgrounds are diverse. So while technical interest is a must, many different degrees are applicable. It also helps to have an aptitude for technical and systems design.

Technology from AEHF satellite communications is one of many programs that our skilled experts are integrating into solutions that will consolidate satellite control networks in the future. If you want to begin your space adventure, check out our current space ground solutions openings.

Published April 10, 2015