What It’s Like to
Operate a Satellite

in ,

In Short: Exciting!

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I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction. I have been interested in space as long as I can remember. I wish I could go into space myself someday, and I hope we will soon become a multi-planet species.

I’ve worked for NASA for 28 years. Since 2009, I’ve been involved in operating satellites and designing the operations of satellites. I was an operator for IRIS (Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph) from its launch in 2013 until 2020. I was an operator for STPSat-5 (Space Technology Program Satellite 5) for the length of the mission (2018–2019).

For both missions, I was responsible for real-time commanding and monitoring, preparing command sequences for unmonitored operations, and scheduling ground stations to communicate with the spacecraft as part of the operations team. On IRIS, I also had to train several new operators as the mission is still ongoing.

Our teams trained hard to prepare for these missions. Between the training and the long, sometimes odd hours of operations, operations teams can become very close.

Satellite in space.
Artist’s rendition of IRIS in Earth orbit. (NASA image)

IRIS is a mission to study the Sun, and STPSat-5 was a technology demonstration mission. Both missions receive their data in the operations center, and then forward it on to the science and payload teams. IRIS quickly publishes their science data on the web.

For neither mission was there anything to see in the MOC (Mission Operations Center) of the science data that was being produced, unlike what most people envision when they think of space operations. It just looked like a small group of people working on computers.

The days spacecraft operators all hope for are routine: checking reports, preparing and uploading sequences. Even those are exciting to me: I get to work in space!

However, both missions experienced anomalies, when things did not go as planned. I had to respond to multiple anomalies on each mission. Some anomalies allowed us plenty of time to figure out what went wrong, devise a plan to solve it, and get things working again. Some anomalies we could not figure out what went wrong for sure, but we knew how to get things working again.

I’ve dealt with two anomalies that required a more urgent response. At one point, I was putting together a command sequence to recover the spacecraft with very little time to spare. I felt quite a bit of pressure as the team was standing around me, waiting for me to complete it in time for the command pass coming up in a few minutes.

For me, operating spacecraft is a very rewarding job. I’m doing work in a field that I love, and I have to deal with situations that challenge me to think quickly and carefully.

Robert Carvalho is an Engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, and is hoping to see humans leave low Earth orbit in his lifetime. He is currently designing operations for NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER).

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