Friday, June 13, 2008

Satellite Antennas

I don't talk much about most of my work; I'm not suppose to.

But a big part of the products we design and build are for commercial, or public, non-secretive applications. And it's OK to talk about these things, though I must admit that the closed mouth becomes such a habit, that I rarely talk about even the unsecure stuff. (When I actually do talk about my work at home, my family always asks if I'm going to have to kill them after I tell them my story.)

While we design and build a lot of different things, almost all of our products have to do with electronic communications.

What I do, specifically, is that I work as part of teams of engineers to design, prototype, test, and finally produce the digital circuit cards and their enclosures that are then used in satellite communications systems.

A satellite buzzing about the earth in space is the most persnickety piece of the satellite system, simply because once it is in space there is generally no way to fix it if something goes wrong or doesn't work.

A satellite may cost thirty million dollars, but if it gets into space and then doesn't work when they try to start using it, or if it breaks down before it's estimated life span is complete, then that's a lot of money down the drain, not to mention the loss of a much needed satellite.

All the ground equipment that is used to direct the satellite, and communicate through the satellite, the stuff I work with, costs many millions more, but if something is broke on earth, it's where we can get our hands on the broken part or parts and either repair or replace them. This is my personal bread and butter; many engineers like the design and prototyping of new circuit cards, but HATE to try to debug and repair broken circuit cards.

I happen to like the troubleshooting and repairing just as much as the design aspects, and I therefore end up working on programs much longer than many of the other engineers that started the program or programs with me. They want to move on to a new design phase somewhere else, and I stay until the bitter end and help work out all the kinks that inevitably show up in the circuit cards.

One of the coolest parts of a satellite communication system is the antenna that ends up on the "bird" or satellite.

For the sake of limited space and weight capabilities, satellite antennas have come to mostly use an unfurlable, metal mesh antenna. Folded, it takes up little space on the rocket, and when the satellite is in it's final orbit, the ground system folks will command the antenna to open up.

The company I work for is the antenna designer and builder or choice for many big name companies that are responsible for the building of the entire satellite.

Recently, Loral Space Systems put a new commercial communications satellite into orbit, and while everyone held their breaths, the Harris Corporation made antenna was successfully deployed (opened and began working correctly).

There is a five minute video on our company web site, of this antenna being deployed in space. It has an initial animated video produced to show what the antenna is supposed to do, and then from two different cameras on the satellite in space, it shows the actual opening of the real antenna in space this past April.

The video is five minutes long, if your computer has a connection fast enough to watch video.

Also, the company has a neat brochure (in color!) of the antennas, including the type that is illustrated in the video, in a .pdf file if you have Adobe Acrobat Reader on your computer. This is the best option if you can't watch video on your system because of the slowness of a dial-up connection.

Anyway, there are no brochures with neat color pictures of the circuit cards I actually work on, that would be painfully boring, but the antenna is the neatest looking and most glamorous part of a sat-comm system. Antennas are what passes for glitz in the satellite communications world.

Here's the link to the Loral satellite with the Harris Corp. antenna opening up.

Here's the link to the Acrobat file (.pdf) from Harris, showing our antenna products.

I recommend that you at least look at the brochure (lots of color! pictures, very little reading) and near the end it shows the huge anechoic chambers and clean rooms on site here where they test the antennas before delivery to be added to a satellite. The brochure also has an aerial view of our company's main "campus" in Palm Bay, with the massive buildings containing the test chambers pointed out for you.

The picture at the top of the post, shows all the digital and software engineers that were part of a program to produce the digital (baseband) portion of a mobile satellite terminal I worked on a few years ago. I'm second from the right end.

This picture below, is the same mobile unit as it is used in the field.


Babystepper said...

Very cool!

My husband would love to work on something with such obvious practicality.

Sharon Lynne said...

Very interesting. (I watched half of the video until it froze.) But it was still quite impressive.

How awesome to have a job connected with satellites. I recently signed up for an email that tells me when something significant is going on overhead. So a couple of nights ago, I saw the international space station fly over.

I bought a couple chaise lounges for the yard so I can go out and stare into space on summer nights.

...and recently I visited the Griffith Park Observatory. (on my latest post)

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