In search of a sharper image: Alaska plays key role in high-tech satellite tracking

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- A 29-foot satellite dish automatically locked on to a French satellite about 400 miles above the earth early Thursday afternoon.

The white parabolic dish, delicately balanced on its steel base with lead counter weights, traced a steady arc through the sky with no hint of vibration or rattling in its acrobatics.

Two electric motors, each with the power of a lawn mower, worked in opposition, holding the gears tight and keeping the center of the dish inching along, perfectly focused on a 1,500-pound satellite traveling at 17,000 mph.

The distant satellite transmitted a stream of data back to earth, which was transferred into a refrigerator-sized terminal for processing in the office. Depending on the day, the satellite data downloaded in Fairbanks could consist of photos of Russian tanks in the Ukraine, images of the Indian Ocean where the Malaysia Airlines jet may have disappeared, radar images of ice conditions in the Arctic or the aftermath of a tornado in Texas.

This particular satellite pass took place Thursday as a ribbon-cutting ceremony was about to occur inside the office building at the ground station, marking another step in the specialized corner of technology where the Last Frontier meets the Final Frontier.

The satellite dish at the nondescript ground station, just outside of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway, tracked the satellite across the horizon from the northeast to the southwest.

The advantage of receiving satellite data in Interior Alaska is based on the first rule of real estate -- location, location, location. Because of the convergence of the lines of latitude, satellites orbiting from pole to pole are within view here about 10 times a day, while stations in the southern U.S. might have just a single chance per day to download data.

Similar computer-heavy data collection exercises in Fairbanks are repeated daily at a half-dozen public and private ground stations. They follow dozens of weather, scientific and communications satellites streaking through space, spanning the globe every 90 minutes on north-south orbits.

On each pass, the satellites send images and other information collected from around the world -- a massive information transfer from the visible spectrum and the infrared spectrum that is out of sight and out of mind to most of us on the ground.

In search of a sharper image

The University of Alaska Fairbanks received the 16-year-old satellite dish as a gift from a major private satellite company that no longer needed it after a corporate merger. With this expansion, the university hopes to expand its curriculum and build job opportunities and expertise in the field of remote sensing, said Nettie La Belle-Hamer, director of the Alaska Satellite Facility.

One sign of the rapidly changing technology is that a second satellite dish at the Richardson site is obsolete, though it was an essential piece of equipment in the 1990s. When the private ground station began running, information had to be sent to a communications satellite 22,000 miles over the Equator for transmission to the Lower 48. Faster Internet connections have long since made that step unnecessary.

The donor of the dish, DigitalGlobe, continues to operate a ground station about 10 miles east of Fairbanks on Chena Hot Springs Road, collecting date from five high-resolution satellites. There are no signs revealing the work that goes on at the ground station or how the information collected here has become a major element in the daily lives of people the world over. The Universal Space Network ground station on Bradway Road near North Pole and another at Poker Flat, north of Fairbanks, perform similar satellite monitoring services for government and private clients.

DigitalGlobe provides satellite images that are used to create the maps used by the everyday consumer in Google Maps. It also sells mapping information to Nokia and Microsoft, though the government is DigitalGlobe's biggest customer.

Airbus, a competitor of DigitalGlobe that is using the UAF site to track its satellites, announced agreements of its own last September to supply satellite imagery to Google for Google Maps, Google Earth and other products.

DigitalGlobe received permission June 11 from the U.S. government to sell images that show more detail -- allowing items the size of a shoebox to be picked out, The New York Times said. The change would allow buyers to see if the vehicles in a parking lot are pickup trucks or sedans, but it would not be enough to read a brand name or a logo.

The action by the Department of Commerce continues a long-established trend of easing restrictions on commercial companies in terms of what level of detail they can show with satellite images. With a new satellite set for launch in August, DigitalGlobe plans to sell sharper images soon. While the satellite operators want to sell higher resolution images to open up new markets, the move in that direction has been slowed by government concerns about security. Increasingly, there are added concerns about privacy.

The Wall Street Journal reported June 16 that a startup company bought by Google for $500 million, Skybox, may end up as a key player in the mapping business. The Journal said DigitalGlobe satellites cost 10 times as much and are 10 times heavier than those promoted by Skybox.

DigitalGlobe, based in Colorado, says it has built an archive of high-resolution photos covering hundreds of millions of square miles, collected over the years through its ground stations in Fairbanks, Prudhoe Bay and Norway.

History and partnerships

In 1962, the Gilmore Creek Tracking Station north of Fairbanks received its first large parabolic dishes. As the farthest-north station in the early NASA network, it played a key role in keeping weather satellites operating. A few years later, the European Space Research Organization built ground stations in Fairbanks, the Falkland Islands, Belgium and Norway for satellite tracking. All that remains of the ESRO today in Fairbanks is a road by that name, but satellite tracking has a long history in this area.

After receiving the Richardson Highway satellite dish from DigitalGlobe, UAF purchased the land and set up the site as a branch operation of the Alaska Satellite Facility, which has been following science satellites since the 1980s on the West Ridge. ASF managers say the organization aims to be the preeminent university ground station in the world and the leading NASA ground station in Alaska.

It has now partnered with Airbus and GeoNorth LLC, the latter a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Tatitlek Corporation. UAF and GeoNorth have a partnership to manage the site for data reception, offering near real-time access to images from around the world.

Airbus says the station, one of nearly 40 it now uses around the globe, is the first that offers both radar images and high-resolution photography from the same facility.

The more receiving stations there are, the faster customers can get images that they order. This can be hours in some cases, days in others. Satellites traveling in a north-south orbit can cover the entire world in one day.

Airbus aimed its cameras and radar equipment to search for the missing Malaysian jetliner in March, while DigitalGlobe took similar steps to search 1,200 square miles of ocean. Early this year one Airbus satellite provided a sharp satellite image of the massive Keystone Canyon avalanche in Valdez within six hours.

Another Airbus satellite has been employed in tasks ranging from mapping the entire island of Cyprus in 90 seconds to obtaining high-resolution images of North Korea.

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