Up in the Arctic, 650 miles from the North Pole, there appears to be a landscape dotted with 100 giant golf balls, all cued up and ready for a game. But, in fact, this is the home of SvalSat, the northernmost – and one of the largest – satellite stations in the world. The station resides a few hundred meters higher than the town of Longyearbyen below, which is home to about 2,500 residents. Inside each “golf ball” are actually dish antennas – some dishes are quite large at 42 feet in diameter – pointed at the sky, tracking satellites circling the planet. The domes are for protection as the archipelago of Svalbard, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, is often subject to quite harsh weather.
These 100 antennas track more than 3500 passes each day by several hundred satellites – including many Earth-observing ones that are essential for studying the impacts of climate change, as they image glaciers, forests, and coastlines. Many of the Earth-observing satellites are in polar orbits, circling from pole to pole every 90 minutes.
Satellites link to more than one ground station around the world to provide coverage – but SvalSat’s location gives it an advantage. Due to Earth’s rotation, a station at the equator that may have been in line with a satellite’s orbit when it was crossing the pole, would have rotated far to the west, thus, getting out of alignment (out of sight) of the satellite by the time it got overhead. Because SvalSat is at such a high latitude, it rotates relatively little, remaining “in range” of the satellite. Thus, the station can connect more with these satellites and download more data from them on a more real-time basis. Where does this data go? Under the ocean to the Norwegian mainland, some 500 miles south, by fiber-optic cables. From space, to the high Arctic, to underwater to the land – that’s quite the journey!