ATSC engineers gear up for a trip to the coldest place on earth

Antarctica. . . it has the coldest climate of any continent, it is covered by 90 percent of the world's ice, and it has the strongest sustained westerly winds on Earth. Even so, Antarctica sounds downright inviting to a handful of engineers and technicians from the Engineering Department in Columbia, Md run by Jim Conrad.

Later this year, these brave and dedicated ATSC employees will take off for NASA's McMurdo ground station on Ross Island, Antarctica. Their mission is to stay warm while installing a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system, which will enable the transfer of stored data from McMurdo to the White Sands Ground Terminal in New Mexico.

The four TDRS satellites are the most sophisticated communications satellites in orbit today. They, along with the various ground terminals scattered around the world, provide a continuous communications and tracking system for the space shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, and other orbiting satellites. ATSC already manages, operates, and maintains the network, linking and controlling the TDRS satellites with Earth resources and users. Now, thanks to ATSC, the 40-year-old McMurdo ground station will be upgraded with the capability to use the TDRS satellites for data transfer.

"The TDRS satellites are in a geosynchronous orbit, which means they orbit parallel to the equator," explained Hugh Pickens, ATSC manager of the Project Engineering Group. "Since Antarctica is at the bottom of the world, it is extremely difficult for the McMurdo station to see the satellites through the troposphere since the TDRS satellites rise only a few degrees above the horizon," he added.

"Three years ago, NASA personnel went to McMurdo and proved that the TDRS satellites could be seen from there. This was the first step in a long line of events that eventually resulted in the National Science Foundation and NASA tasking ATSC to go to Antarctica," said Kevin Culin, ATSC McMurdo program manager.

Culin explained that ATSC's first job was to come up with a design for the new system. Then, during a six- to ten-week stay at McMurdo, ATSC engineers will install and upgrade the equipment. When the work is done, the new components will not only collect the data, but will provide a way of getting the data out of Antarctica.

"Currently, McMurdo gathers the data from orbiting satellites and stores them onto imaging tapes. Then, once per year, the tapes are loaded in limited quantities onto tankers or planes and shipped out. This is not an easy task. Strong winds, thick ice, and the distance make traveling to and from Antarctica difficult," Culin added.

With the upgrades to McMurdo, the tapes will be played through the new system, which will send the data directly to TDRS and on to White Sands. The data collection and dissemination that used to take a year will take approximately 48 hours. The new parts are also sturdy, hardy, and need only a limited power supply.

"An Antarctic winter can be very unpleasant," said Culin. "If something breaks, depending on the time of year, it could be months before it is fixed."

Redundancy has been incorporated into certain aspects of the new system to help eliminate down times at the station due to faulty equipment. Culin explained that the equipment must also run effectively and efficiently on wind generators and solar arrays. Fortunately, plans are currently in the works to upgrade to diesel generators. These will prevent the shut-down times that are occasionally necessary due to the weather problems.

"Much of our work will be done in the shelters," said Culin. "This is fortunate for us because during the time we are there, we will be experiencing a few days of total darkness and an average temperature of 0°F."

Culin explained that some of the equipment already at McMurdo will continue to be used with the new equipment. ATSC engineers will modify the existing antenna, repair the drive mechanism, and install the various signal and power cabling necessary for the equipment to be operational.

The ATSC engineers will be traveling back and forth between Ross Island, where the McMurdo station is located, to the uninhabited Black Island (the two are 22 miles apart). Neither site is ideal for viewing TDRS. On Black Island, Mt Erebus, a semi-active volcano, impedes visibility of both islands. The volcano is physically in the way of McMurdo seeing TDRS and obstructs visibility at Black Island with its constant spewing of dust. The trips back and forth are necessary in order to install microwave relays that will provide McMurdo a clear line of site to TDRS.

In striking contrast to Ross Island's ice, Black Island receives very little precipitation and has a climate more akin to a cold desert. Needless to say, the ATSC engineers and technicians going to Antarctica must be prepared. Culin said that each person must have a physical and dental exam before arriving at McMurdo. Medical facilities at the station are very limited and there are no dentists. The group must also attend three days of cold-weather survival training in New Zealand, which is the first stop on their trip to Antarctica.

"In addition to survival training, we will be briefed on how to conduct ourselves in Antarctica once we arrive," said Culin. "For example, we must be very careful not to disturb the seals, penguins, or other wildlife. In fact, vegetation in Antarctica, such as moss banks, are protected and we must take care not to step on anything. In addition, we must not disturb marked sites while we are wandering around, since many scientific experiments are being conducted in this area," he added.

After obtaining clean bills of health, survival and "etiquette" training, and their gear (each person is allowed to take 75 pounds of baggage with them; parkas, boots, and other warm clothing could weight as much as 40 pounds), the engineers will board a cargo plane to begin their ten-hour flight to Antarctica. Culin was told that the headwinds are so strong that the plane could run out of fuel while going against them and be forced to turn back.

"If this happens, we will just wait for another day!" said Culin.

When the plane finally arrives at McMurdo, it will land using snow skis on the permanent ice runway at Williams Field. A bus will then take them to the station. By this time, the equipment should have already arrived and the group will begin the long and painstaking task of installing and testing the station's new components. When their jobs are done, the ATSC engineers come home, leaving the equipment to be remotely operated from White Sands.

"This aspect is what makes McMurdo more challenging than other ground station projects ATSC has completed," said Pickens. "Unlike MILA in Florida, the Bermuda tracking station, or STGT at White Sands, PEG's two TDRS ground terminals, GRTS and McMurdo, are both unmanned. However, unlike GRTS, the station at Black Island will be totally inaccessible during much of the year so it must be totally autonomous and reliable, with remote control design elements not totally unlike those of an autonomous spacecraft."

Sure, the trip means time away from home and a lot of hard work. But Culin said he is looking forward to it as an adventure.

Systems Integration, and Project Management, the challenge of designing, building, and installing Ground Stations such as McMurdo are challenges that PEG Engineers and Project Managers like Kevin accept," added Pickens.

"We will be sleeping on bunks in one large dorm-like room," Culin said. "We have also been told that our food and water will be limited since supplies are shipped to McMurdo only occasionally. I know when people read this story, they will probably pity us! But I think we are very lucky. We are not only assisting NASA and the National Science Foundation with a very worthwhile project, but the trip will also give us the unique opportunity to explore the wonders of one of the most remote areas of the world," he added.

"If ATSC expects to become a Center of Excellence for systems engineering, systems integration, and project management, the challenge of designing, building, and installing Ground Stations such as McMurdo, AGNS, Landsat, and GRTS," added Pickens. "These are challenges that PEG Engineers like Kevin Culin, Peter Miitch, Joe Valvano, and Ed Richards accept."

PEG out to peg more business for ATSC

This is not the first overseas project that Culin and Pickens have worked together on. "Kevin spent six months in Canberra, Australia as part of a team of 20 engineers who installed the GRO Remote Terminal Station (GRTS) in 1993. When NASA came to us to install another TDRS Ground Station at McMurdo, Kevin was my choice to lead the project due to the strong team leadership qualities he displayed on GRTS."

The McMurdo Project is only one of over ten multi-million dollar Ground Station related projects that the Project Engineering Group is now managing. "We have grown from 5 projects and 20 engineers to 13 projects and over 40 engineers since Jim Conrad set up the Project Engineering Group in 1994," Pickens added. "And we are presently pursuing opportunities with NASA and other customers to build additional Ground Stations which, if we win, will more than double our group's business by the end of 1995."

Click here to see the original story from ATSC's Update Magazine.

Perfection is our goal. Excellence will be tolerated.

The 1996 vision for ATSC's Project Engineering Group (PEG) is: Perfection is our Goal. Excellence will be tolerated."

The PEG demonstrated this excellence when they completed the McMurdo ground station, a project to install a satellite ground station in Antarctica for direct communications between the base at McMurdo, Antarctica and the White Sands Test Facility, Las Cruces, NM.

Antarctica provided great challenges to the McMurdo crew for many reasons, including the extreme cold, the isolation, and the lack of communications.

"It is fascinating to realize you are in a place where fewer than 50,000 people have been," said Kevin Culin, ATSC project manager. "It is amazing to see mountains, ridges, and canyons turn into flat terrain. We were sitting on two miles of ice."

Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction writer, spent time in Antarctica with the ATSC McMurdo project engineers while he was gathering information for a new book. Robinson says of Antarctica, "It is a very striking, bizarre sensation, to land on this ice sea, and to have the mountains you go over just covered with a huge cake of ice and snow, so smooth the rocks barely stick out of it."

The McMurdo team, led by Culin, worked under strident deadlines. For example, the team had one year between presenting the preliminary design review of the ground station, and the internal review of all equipment before it was shipped to the customer.

The team met the project's budgetary, schedule, and technical requirements," said Hugh Pickens, ATSC manager of PEG.

The team battled the isolation associated with working at the South Pole through communication via the internet. Daily project information was relayed back to ATSC, as well as minor problems the group needed assistance handling.

The team was recognized for their work by their customer, Frank Stocklin, NASA project manager. Stocklin wrote in a letter to ATSC, {"my admiration and respect for a job very well done. I look forward to working the next challenge with you."

The project has been nominated for the Goddard Space Flight Group Achievement Award. The winners will be notified in the next 3-4 months.

"As a result of the excellent work performed on McMurdo, ATSC was awarded a contract to design electronics and communications systems for the National Science Foundation at the Amundsen/Scott South Pole Station," said Pickens. "The contract has a value of $5 million over the next five years."

PEG achieved "perfection in many ways. They increased business by 50 percent in 1995, and they grew from 40 to 60 employees in the past year.

PEG's completion of the McMurdo ground station, coupled with their future outlook, ensures they will meet their 1996 vision of "Perfection."

Click here to see the original story in ATSC's Update Magazine.

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