Satellite station on show

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Great South Engineering projects and ground segment station manager Robin McNeill at the Awarua Satellite Ground Station's Space Week event on Tuesday. Photo: Abbey Palmer

IN light of International Space Week, the astronomically inclined were invited to tour the world’s southern-most ground station – right in Southland’s backyard.

One of five events across Southland between October 4-10, Great South hosted a tour of the Awarua Satellite Ground Station on Tuesday.

“Seeing what looks like big white golf balls from the road sort of mystifies everyone, so it’s a chance to find out there’s actually antennas inside, and what we do here with them,” Great South Engineering projects and ground segment station manager Robin McNeill said.

The European Space Agency and the French Space Agency worked with Venture Southland, now known as Great South, to establish the satellite ground station in 2008.

The station was built to track the European Space Agency’s Ariane Automated Transfer Vehicle campaigns.

Five Ariane heavy-lift launch vehicles were sent on missions to the International Space Station carrying food, water, oxygen and other supplies between 2008 and 2013 – all of which were successful.

Invercargill resident Peter Collins, who attended the Space Week event, said he witnessed the Ariane 5 detach in the sky over South City. What he saw was the ATV separate from the Ariane 5, which then continued on its journey to the International Space Station.

“I looked in the sky and noticed a light, it caught my eye like a moving star.

“I thought it was an aeroplane at first but I couldn’t hear it, it was cigar-shaped at the top and then I could see the piece separate off the bottom of it and travel North East.” He then called the Invercargill Airport where he was told about the Southland Astronomical Society report confirming it was the Ariane 5 mission.

The main purpose of the ground station now is to monitor satellites as they track the lower part of the earth.

Mr McNeill said the geographical location of the Awarua Satellite Ground Station made it a “fantastic place” for a satellite ground station.

“The site speaks for itself, when we take people up on to Bluff Hill they can see it’s (the area around the ground station) flat, there’s the ocean to the south, there’s no chance of [satellite] interference.”

The self-titled “dish master”, Mr McNeill was the engineer for all the satellite dishes on the station.

“What we’ve got here is really just a SKY TV antenna and set-top box, except on a much grander scale. The antennas are bigger, they move, and instead of watching the All Blacks on TV we get data.”

University of Canterbury masters student Kerry Clapham, who was on a placement at the station, said the site was primarily used as a service provider, where customers, the majority being international, could gather data.

“We gather data (from satellites orbitting the lower part of earth) on weather patterns, images, telecommunication. Each customer has a purpose for what they needed specific data for.”

Over 18 months, Mr Clapham would refurbish an old antenna and gather data from experimental rocket launches conducted by University of Canterbury rocket scientist Dr Chris Hann.

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