NASA question: Who runs satellites? (And where can I find out about such
March 6, 2016 9:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to learn the ins-and-outs of satellite operations. Assuming that i.e. a weather satellite is launched by NASA, what would be the key roles on the responsible team? Does responsibility for day-to-day operations stay at NASA, with a team monitoring the satellite, or does this get transferred to another agency?

bonus points: interesting sources for me to read more on this subject. yay for Kindle books.
posted by krautland to Travel & Transportation (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
US weather satellites specifically are operated by NOAA. Other satellites are operated by NASA itself, by other government agencies, or by private companies (for example, communications satellites are typically privately owned and operated). Until fairly recently NASA (and other government space agencies) had a de facto monopoly on satellite launches and if you had a satellite you wanted to put into orbit, you contracted with NASA to do the job. But it was your satellite and you would operate it after it was in orbit.
posted by kindall at 10:35 PM on March 6, 2016

If you are interested in private hobby satellites check out the various Amsat organizations around the world like or

These are groups that fund, build and run amateur radio satellites. They have documentation and links to the day to day operations in various places.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:37 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe start with the UCS Satellite Database
from the site:
"The database contains 26 types of data for each satellite, including technical information about each satellite (mass, power, launch date, expected lifetime) and its orbit (apogee, perigee, inclination, and period), as well as information on what the satellite is used for, and who owns, operates, and built the satellite."

Back in 2004 someone had the thought, what if the Opportunity Mars rover was a teenage girl with a livejournal account? So the account was created, it caught on, and soon a lot of the probes/satellites had LiveJournals. The ones by the GOES weather satellites had some good info on the day to day operations. The Hubble LJ friend's list links to others.
posted by Sophont at 8:50 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Who runs satellites? I run satellites! I’ve flown 7 satellites and supported two launches.

I’ll address your weather satellite example first, and then discuss the key roles of the responsible team, called the Flight Operations Team. I’ll use DSCOVR for your weather satellite example, it’s a NASA/NOAA mission and studies space weather.

For the DSCOVR mission, NASA brought the spacecraft and Flight Operations Team (FOT), and NOAA brought a scientific instrument, Instrument team and buckets of money. During pre-launch and integration and test of the DSCOVR spacecraft the FOT consisted of contractor personnel with NASA providing project management. I think the DSCOVR team consisted of two veteran flight ops engineers, two fresh outs, a ground system engineer, two software developers, and a manager.

The contractor FOT operated DSCOVR for a 90 to 100 day checkout period, I forget how long the contract with NOAA said it would last, NOAA sometimes extends the contract. During this checkout period the contractor FOT is also training the NOAA personnel who will eventually operate DSCOVR, updating documentation and procedures, etc. based on flight experience. The contractor FOT is then scattered to the wind to work on other missions, but generally is available to NOAA in case NOAA has any questions.

In short, in the case of DSCOVR (and US weather satellites in general) the spacecraft is launched and early orbit operations are conducted by a contractor flight ops team overseen by NASA, during early orbit the NOAA flight ops team is trained up, and eventually the NOAA team takes over during normal operations with the original contractor launch team available for consultation.

I presently work on Fermi, and I’ve worked on other missions in the past. In general the types of roles you might see on a spacecraft flight operations team could be:

Flight Operations Engineers: These are the people who sit in the Mission Operations Room and look at telemetry pages and press the buttons that make the spacecraft go. More formally, we’re responsible for the health and safety of the spacecraft. Modern unmanned space missions are typically 8x5 first shift only, with one or two members of the FOT on call during nights and weekends.

Each FOT member is typically assigned one or two spacecraft subsystems to become the local expert in. Right now, I’m the Fermi EPS (power) guy, and my subsystem is nominal. Each FOT member will typically be given a certain area of documentation to maintain.

Mission Planner: One or more flight operations engineers are typically trained as a Mission Planner. A Planner runs software that takes inputs such as the science timeline, contact schedule, and flight dynamics products that generates an Absolute Time Sequenced load. The ATS load may be daily, 3 day, weekly, etc. depending on the number of commands in the ATS load. The ATS handles things such as transmitter turn on before AOS, transmitter turn off after LOS, starting and stopping dumps of recorded data, and instrument commanding.

Ground Segment Engineer: We have a sysadmin who keeps our computers and networks running. He deals with external networking entities like our Instrument Operations Centers, NASA Communications (NASCOM), White Sands, and the Universal Space Network.

Flight Dynamics person: FDS gathers ephemerides for ground and space assets you might use to communicate with your spacecraft and generates your flight dynamics products, for example your spacecraft’s ephemeris, an collision avoidance ephemeris for the CARA folks, and your orbital events like eclipse entry/exit time. We also generate special FDS products for events like collision avoidance burns and observing targets of opportunity.

A Flight Ops Team also has access to software developers who typically worked on the mission during the pre-launch phase.

While not part of the Flight Operations Team, we should discuss the Science Operations Team, because science is what pays the bills. Our principal investigator (PI) has her staff of scientists and science instrument operators who have the knowledge to make sense of the our data, get published, and make a case for our continued funding. The Science Operations Team is Mr. Spock to the Flight Operation Team’s Scotty. I guess that would make our NASA Mission Director Captain Kirk.

I don’t really have anything interesting to suggest as a reading source about flight operations, you typically learn flight operations via on-the-job training as opposed to reading anyway. I hope what I’ve written has given you some insight into spacecraft flight operations.
posted by Rob Rockets at 10:02 AM on March 7, 2016 [91 favorites]

"FDS gathers ephemerides ..."

Learnt a new word today!
posted by GallonOfAlan at 5:40 AM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I only understood about 40% of your answer, Rob Rockets, but it is fascinating. Can I ask a piggyback question? What kind of educational/professional background do all these folks have? I ask specifically because you said "you typically learn flight operations via on-the-job training," and I'm curious about who gets hired to learn a job like that, as opposed to who gets hired to do a job like that, with existing knowledge/experience.

And: Is there always someone at the virtual helm of a particular satellite? Like, is someone "making it go" 24/7/365? Or do you just occasionally check in on it to make sure it's doing what it's supposed to?

Thanks for such a thorough answer to someone else's question. I hope it's okay to add those few more questions here.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:53 PM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not Bob Rockets, but my first job out of college was also satellite operations. We contracted for [redacted] to monitor communications satellites. This was quite some time ago, and I'm no longer in the industry.

Who got hired: our team was a mix of engineers (not just aerospace), physics, and even math majors. We did learn on the job; it took about a year of training, study, and testing before you were certified to run operations on a particular satellite model without supervision. I wasn't involved in hiring or interviewing, so I don't know specifically what hiring managers would look for, other than a somewhat related degree or experience.

Was someone always at the virtual helm: not for us. We checked in on each satellite a few times a day, and during certain times (start or end of eclipse, etc.) where some "birds" needed a closer look. But we usually expected that problems would initially show up as trends that it was our job to notice. The satellites usually had two of every important part, and could automatically switch to the backup in case of failure. Then we'd see that during the next health check and take note.

However, the control room was like a firehouse in that it was staffed 24/7/365 with a team ready to take action. There was always plenty to do (planning, etc.) during "downtime".
posted by kurumi at 8:49 AM on March 11, 2016

Learnt a new word today!

Now go download some TLE data and a satellite tracker, and you can visualize ephemerides data in your own living room!

I only understood about 40% of your answer

I understood all of it, but I guess a decade in ground segment work helps :-)

(we're the folks that get data from the satellites and beats it into shape so the scientists and forecast models can use them, something that's probably done by some random redshirt in ST lingo)
posted by effbot at 2:01 AM on March 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

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