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Satellites explained: the hardware Buckley works with


It seems that anyone who knows anything about space these days is called a rocket scientist. 

It’s not really an accurate label.

At Buckley Air Force Base, which is full of people who know lots of “anythings” about space, one is more likely to run into a space operator – someone who works with space systems and manages a system’s every day operations.

Here, space operators are in the satellite business.

Some people understand satellites as complex pieces of metal, put into outer space, which by some modern miracle manages to communicate information to people on earth and is destined to become space junk.

That’s not really an accurate description.

Technically, a satellite is anything that is in orbit around something else. The moon, for example, is a satellite of the earth. Artificial satellites are placed into orbit by man.

One local space operator describes a space satellite as a system designed to operate outside of the earth’s atmosphere in a defined orbit and that accomplishes a specific mission.

Basically, a satellite is designed around a payload, said Lt. Col. Tim Lawrence, director of the Space Systems Research Center at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“The last major piece (of a satellite) is the payload, which is mission dependent,” he said. “It can be cameras or antennas or equipment necessary for science, depending upon what the satellite is designed to do.”

The other major parts of a satellite are designed around what the payload is, Colonel Lawrence said.

“The bus, which can be divided into different areas like power, communications, data handling and propulsion, is the body of a satellite,” Colonel Lawrence said. “Then you have the structure of the satellite that keeps everything together, and makes sure the satellite can survive the rigors of space and launch, especially gravitational forces.”

“(After design and fabrication) a satellite has to get into orbit. For the most part, we – the Air Force and the nation – use rockets to do that,” said Maj. Rod Miller, 460th Operations Support Squadron operations officer. “(Satellites) are placed into one of many orbits that the satellite is positioned to do its job.”

For example, a space-based infrared system satellite operates in a geosynchronous orbit, he said. To a human on earth, a satellite in geosynchronous orbit would seem like it wasn’t moving. The orbit allows the satellite to remain stationary over a given geographic region.

With a constellation of satellites in geosynchronous orbit, the 460th Space Wing can keep their eyes on many parts of the world all the time. The continuous vigilance means the wing can provide combatant commanders and national leaders with the situation awareness they require.

“The military uses satellites mainly for weather, timing and navigation, tracking, targeting and situational awareness,” Major Miller said.

And it’s becoming increasingly common for the average American to be affected by satellites on a daily basis, whether they’re talking on a cell phone or watching satellite television.

The world of satellite design and launch isn’t easy, and while space may seem like a limitless frontier, it’s not. Many satellites are designed with multiple payloads – saving money and limiting the number of satellites orbiting the earth.

It’s expensive to put a satellite in orbit, and the heavier the satellite, the more expensive it becomes, Major Miller said.

“So most satellites have a few missions on them, which keeps them small enough to launch, but also allows fewer satellites to perform many missions. But there are limitations on what kind of missions can be performed on the same satellites,” he said. “For example, DSP and MILSTAR missions aren’t compatible, and if we tried to put them on the same satellite, the satellite would be too complex.”

Certainly, the design and operation of a satellite isn’t easy, so not just anyone can do the job. Space operators here are always training. They begin with a training program at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., where they learn to operate a space system.

Arriving here, there are different qualification courses for each career position, Major Miller said. Crew commanders, mission crew chiefs and data system operators all learn how to evaluate data and report it. Systems operators learn how to control satellites and ground stations, and how to manage the entire system so it operates around the clock.

So yes, satellites are complex pieces of metal (and plastic), that people place in outer space, and that manage to communicate information to people on earth. But the “miracle” that makes them work has a lot to do with the men and women of the Buckley AFB – the ones called space operators, not rocket scientists.