Space: Ground System R&D
Nov 15, 2008

When people think of space systems, they typically think of two things – the rocket and the satellite. And why not? The danger, the sense of adventure, the allure of space – let’s face it: these are all very exciting!

Truth be told, the power of the rocket and the technology of the satellite are useless without systems back on the ground to support them.

The mission needs to be planned, the status and safety of the spacecraft monitored, and daily tasks need to be received from the user, scheduled, and transmitted to the spacecraft. And, finally, the information that the spacecraft gathers needs to be transmitted to the ground, and then processed, archived and distributed to the end users. If the satellite is the exciting attention-grabber, the ground systems are the hard-working, behind-the-scene types.
Engineer Jean-François Levesque ­demonstrates some of the equipment he has helped automate to operate the 9.1m antenna (below) that is the centerpiece of the DRDC Ottawa Tracking, Telemetry and Control ground station.

DRDC has a long history in satellite communications Research and Development, and it is a logical leap to satellite ­control. To this end, an underused satcom R&D station was modified for satellite ­control R&D. The centerpiece of this system is a 9.1 metre parabolic reflector (quite a dish by anybody’s definition); also available is a 4.6 m antenna suitable for higher frequency work. But while the antennas are big and noticeable (and, if you think about all that they do, exciting),  what is of utmost importance is what you don’t see: people.

DRDC is heavily involved in making space affordable and accessible to the Canadian Forces. On the spacecraft side, this involves ­creating small, focused spacecraft that can leverage commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) parts.

While the focus is still on COTS solutions for ground systems, an additional focus enters the picture: automation.

The rationale is that the capital cost of the spacecraft (and launch) is a one-time cost. Operations, however, take more than just money, they require people – trained and highly specialized personnel.

Such people are a precious resource for the CF, and generating the numbers needed for a traditional 24/7 manned capability are very challenging and costly. Therefore, a major objective for DRDC’s effort in ground system R&D is to reduce the manning levels as much as possible. The idea is to automate user interaction, automate the monitoring of the spacecraft, build a robust antenna using proven COTS technology, and minimize home-built components – these comprise the backbone to DRDC ground system R&D.

And it is working. In a short time DRDC has created a ground station system that can operate unattended for days at a time. DRDC has worked with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to transmit commands and receive data from the CSA-owned SCISAT-1 spacecraft, and has downloaded data from the British Topsat satellite, proving that this approach works. In fact, the success is such that the DRDC ground station is baselined to be the prime control site for a DRDC/CSA satellite to be launched in 2010.

But if we can create an automated, unattended system, why do we need to restrict it to staying in one place? Why can’t we create a portable ground station that can be positioned to maximize the amount of data downloaded to the ground, or to minimize response time, or even to task and download data to and from a deployed operational theatre? Right now, we are not there… but in the near future, perhaps, and that is kind of exciting too.
Brad Wallace currently leads the Surveillance of Space R&D efforts at DRDC (Defence R&D Canada).
© Frontline Defence 2008