Sky Eye: KSAT observes the globe 24/7
M. Michael Brady
KSAT, pronounced in two syllables, “K-SAT,” is the abbreviation for Kongsberg Satellite Services, a Norwegian company that owns and operates radio stations that communicate with satellites in orbit round the Earth. It owes its existence to Norway’s geographical advantages in the space age.
Orbiting satellites sort into two broad categories, ones that relay information and ones that initiate images. Relay satellites are the most familiar. They act as does a runner in a relay race who carries a baton on to the next runner on a team, transferring information from one place to another. Satellite television is a commonplace use of them. Television programs are beamed up to satellites and in turn broadcast down to home dish antennas. Other relay satellite systems include those that provide telecommunications and Internet connections over distance and communications to and from mobile users, such as ships at sea or aircraft in flight. In principle, relay satellites offer alternatives to older traditional technologies, such as wire and radio communication systems, including modern ones like home cable TV.
Satellite imagery is another matter. It cannot be done in any other way by any other wire or conventional radio communication system. The first satellite images of the Earth were made by the Explorer 6 satellite launched by NASA in August 1959, a little more than two years after the launch in 1957 of Sputnik 1, the first satellite. KSAT now deals with imaging satellites that are owned and operated by governmental agencies and private companies round the world. So it’s in a business that didn’t exist 60 years ago, save in science fiction.
Imaging satellites may be in one of two types of orbit, geostationary or polar. The geostationary orbit is directly above the Equator. It is so named because as seen from a rotating Earth, satellites traveling in it seem to hover at fixed spots. The view from it is of an entire hemisphere of the Earth. As its name implies, a polar orbit passes over both poles of the Earth. A satellite in polar orbit views the entire Earth, one north-south (or vice versa) strip at a time.
Geostationary satellite images are most useful in providing overviews, such as those used by the daily media in weather forecasts. But views from the geostationary orbit are of relatively low resolution due to its 22,300-mile altitude above the Earth. Moreover, Earth image detail is lost above 81°N and below 81°S latitude, making the poles indiscernible. In comparison, views from satellites in polar orbits closer to the Earth at altitudes of around 530 miles are of higher resolution and include the poles in equally sharp detail. Consequently, KSAT deals almost exclusively with satellites in polar orbits.
That came about for reasons reflected in the 90-year-old aphorism that the three most important things in real estate are “location, location, location.”* The first Norwegian ground station for polar orbiting satellites was the Tromsø Satellite Station (TSS) north of the Arctic Circle at 69°N latitude. It started up in May 1968 and from then on expanded to meet increasing needs for satellite image downloads. In 1990 it became part of the Norwegian Space Center (NSC), the government agency founded in 1987 to oversee the Norwegian space sector.
The success of TSS triggered a second initiative, a ground station even farther north, at 78°N on Spitsbergen Island in the Svalbard archipelago. Named SvalSat, it began operating in 1997. By 2002 the two stations’ volume of image downloading had increased to the point where NSC commercialized it by joining forces with the Kongsberg Group to found KSAT.
In turn, the success of the first two ground stations prompted locating a third one in the Antarctic, at the Norwegian Polar Institute’s research station at 72°S in Queen Maud Land. The Troll Satellite Station (TrollSat) was built there on solid ground, 300 km from the ice shelf. It opened in 2007.
Today, KSAT is a leader in satellite ground station services. In addition to the three polar stations that provide exclusive pole-to-pole services, it owns and operates mid-latitude stations in Singapore, at Bangalore, India, in Dubai, and at Hartebeeshoek, South Africa. Together the stations access 90 satellites and download their images to provide useful new views of the lands and waters of the planet, including the detection of oil spills at sea, the monitoring of illegal, unreported, or unlicensed fishing (IUU), and the tracking and study of algae blooms.
Last year, KSAT set up a network of stripped-down ground station facilities tailored to the needs of the expanding families of small satellites known as CubeSats, because they are standardized cubes about two and a half inches across. CubeSat is a child of this millennium, as the development of it began in 1999 at California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University as a step to opening an affordable path to space for smaller scientific and commercial users. So in addition to tending its flock of 90 satellites, KSAT has become a shepherd looking forward to the next generation.
Further information: The KSAT website at www.ksat.no (English only) and the Norwegian Space Center website at www.romsenter.no (selectable in Norwegian or English).
* Said to have first appeared in 1926 in a real estate ad in the Chicago Tribune but also attributed to British real estate tycoon Lord Harold Samuel (1912-1987).
This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.