The 100 geodesic domes of the Svalbard Satellite Station are located on a plateau on an island in the high Norwegian Arctic and look like abstract mushrooms sprouting from the snowy landscape.
From the outside there seems to be little going on. But each dome protects an antenna that is brought to life day and night, aiming precisely at satellites as they rise above the horizon and trapped on them as they soar across the sky. In the minutes before the satellite falls below the opposite horizon, software commands can be sent and data can almost certainly be sent.
SvalSat, as the station is called, is a crucial behind-the-scenes workhorse that supports scientific research. The hotel is just outside the town of Longyearbyen in the Svalbard Archipelago, 800 miles from the North Pole, making it the northernmost satellite station in the world.
It’s also one of the greatest. The 100 antennas at the station, some 42 feet in diameter, track more than 3,500 passes daily from several hundred satellites, including many Earth observation antennas essential to studying the effects of climate change.
Among them are the two active satellites for Landsat, the joint program by NASA and the United States Geological Survey that provides images of shrinking glaciers, changing forests, eroding coastlines, and other symptoms of global warming.
SvalSat also tracks many other satellites, including those from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel program, which resembles Landsat, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Suomi NPP spacecraft, which measures sea surface temperatures and indicates how much solar energy is reflected by the earth and many other variables related to the climate.
These and other Earth observation satellites are in polar orbits and orbit from pole to pole approximately every hour and a half. Some of the orbits are sun synchronous, which means that the satellite travels over every point on the surface at the same time relative to the sun. This is particularly useful for imaging satellites because the angle at which the sun illuminates the earth is the same for each image.
Satellites connect to more than one ground station around the world to ensure coverage of their orbits. However, the high location of SvalSat gives him an advantage over others, said Maja-Stina Ekstedt, the station’s director.
For example, because of the Earth’s rotation, a station on the equator that may have been aligned with a satellite’s orbit when the satellite crossed the pole would have turned far west. out of sight of the spacecraft as it passed overhead.
At such a high latitude, however, SvalSat would have turned relatively little and would have stayed within range. The station can be linked to a satellite in polar orbit on any of the 15 passes it typically makes each day.
“That is what is unique about Spitsbergen,” said Ms. Ekstedt. “We can download data and send commands to it every time it passes.”
As a result, the station downloads a lot of data that is transported underwater to mainland Norway via fiber optic cables.
SvalSat has a control room for managing the antennas, some of which pass from different satellites just a few minutes apart, and for sending and receiving signals. A control room in Tromsø, a Norwegian port 500 miles south where the company that operates SvalSat, Kongsberg Satellite Services, is located, can also operate the station. (The company operates about 100 ground stations worldwide, including another high latitude station, Troll, on the Antarctic coast, which is smaller and cannot transmit data at high speeds.)
Ms. Ekstedt manages around 40 employees who operate the antennas and repair and maintain devices. While the domes are transparent to radio waves, snow can interfere with the signals. So in a location with an average of 170 days of snow per year, clearing the outside of the domes is a common task.
The weather can also affect access to the station itself. Although it is only about six miles to the center of Longyearbyen, the train station is at the end of a long steep road.
“It can be very interesting just to go here,” said Ms. Ekstedt. “In winter, we monitor the weather very closely every day due to the difficult driving conditions and the risk of avalanches.” When heavy snowfall accumulates on the road, everyone except those who operate the satellites can be evacuated from the construction site before the road becomes completely impassable becomes. Occasionally, workers need to be flown by helicopter.
Ms. Ekstedt and her family have lived in Longyearbyen for a decade. Although it has only 2,500 residents, there are plenty of cultural activities and practically unlimited opportunities for outdoor recreation. “We’re a little spoiled up here,” she said.
And they work in a place that plays an important role in supporting science. “It is really amazing to understand what you belong to,” said Ms. Ekstedt, “when you know what all these images and data in the world are used for.”