The Noble Art of LEOP-ing
Getting an affordable ride into space, is and always has been, a challenge. Launch vehicles are a sparse commodity these days, and hitching a ride is expensive and often results in significant delays. But with luck, you’ll finally be sitting there anxiously watching the blast off. The next phase in your endeavor towards space then begins. It’s the launch and early operation (LEOP) phase. This is the critical time window in which your satellite is deployed, checked out and tested. It’s the phase in which the most things may go wrong, so it’s important to be able to contact your satellite whenever a need arises, as in case of an emergency. In the LEOP phase, the satellite is readied for operation. First, the satellite is separated from the launch vehicle. Then its solar panels are deployed, power turned on and subsystems are checked out. Communications between the satellite and the ground are carried out several times per orbit as the satellite transmits its housekeeping information to the ground station. The Mission Operation Centre (MOC) collects information from the station and initiates necessary actions to correct their behavior if needed.
At the ground station, the diligent attention of skilled engineers is mandatory. It’s a totally diﬀerent game than for a routine operation where most of the communication nowadays are machine-machine interactions under human supervision.
Image: During a LEOP, both the antenna recourses and the engineering support often are duplicated to provide real time troubleshooting in case of an emergency. KSAT has dedicated a team of skilled engineers complementing the operation staff during LEOPs.
An extensive set of ground stations, strategically located under the launch trajectory is a pre-requisite for reliable LEOP service. For polar launches, ground stations close to the poles obviously are important. Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) now oﬀers LEOP services as an integrated part of the overall service oﬀerings to its customers. During a LEOP, both the antenna recourses and the engineering support often are duplicated to provide real time troubleshooting in case of an emergency. KSAT has dedicated a team of skilled engineers complementing the operation staﬀ during LEOPs. Several antennas in the KSAT ground network will be dedicated to the launch support. In the beginning 10 years ago, KSATs conducted just one LEOP a year. Now LEOP supports have become a routine activity in the KSAT portfolio. In the summer months of 2016 alone, 22 satellites were supported during their LEOPs. A total of 23 LEOP campaigns where supported last year. This steady growth, reﬂects the benefits of the KSAT services. LEOP activities are complex. As an example, a support from KSAT Svalbard a few years ago involved three individual data streams coming down at the same time for two independent customers. The launch vehicle provider was supported with telemetry from the launch vehicle itself, including information about the separation. It was a challenging task, as the vehicle is constantly rotated. In parallel, the satellite owner had two individual links to the spacecraft, since separation took place over Svalbard. Recently KSAT supported a world record, when the Indian PSLV delivered a total of 104 satellites into orbit. It is the first time 88 satellites from the same family have been launched on a single launch vehicle. It illustrates the complexity of a sophisticated LEOP and the logistical challenges associated with multiple satellite launches. It, in turn underscores the necessity of having a sufficient number of antennas and systems ready. In Svalbard alone, KSAT operates nearly 40 antenna systems. The noble art of LEOP-ing has been brought to perfection by KSAT. During the critical phase where the satellite is brought into orbit, KSAT engineers monitor it and ensure that the essential information is rapidly sent back to the owner and operator.