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8 December, 2003

A Tour of NASA's McMurdo Ground Station

Today Erik Richards, our Crary neighbor across the hall, gave us the tour of NASA's McMurdo Ground Station. Located at 77' 50" S and 166' 40" E, it the world's farthest south satellite tracking station. The system tracks polar satellites. These pass over the poles at altitudes of nearly 400 miles and move so fast that they circle the Earth nearly every 90 minutes. This system works with US, Canadian, and European satellites in coordination with other ground stations around the world.

Erik and his partner, Nik Sinkola, are in charge of monitoring the antenna as it tracks various satellites that pass over the continent collecting data. Some of its monitoring satellites have included: GRACE 1 and 2 (modeling Earth's gravity field and collecting global climate data), TRACE (explored the sun's photosphere) , FAST, WIRE, SWAS, and Canada's RADARSAT (which is creating high resolution maps of the continent). While we have nicknamed Nik and Erik as the "NASA boys", they are actually employed by Honeywell Technical Solution, Inc., who has the contract with NASA.

Erik kindly drove our team to an area that is normally off limits and allowed us to go inside the dome that protects the antenna. He also planned it so that we would be present when a satellite passed. Inside the dome, the 10-meter antenna is basically a huge satellite dish and it towered above us. In the middle of the tour an alarm sounded and red light began flashing, indicating the passing satellite. The dish turned, tilted and rotated as it began tracking it. Each passing satellite has a slightly different orbit and computer programs determine the precise movement of the dish and the link. Each pass lasts roughly fifteen minutes.

Just outside the Dome is Building 71 which houses the majority of the equipment needed to receive signals from and sent signals to the satellites that are in orbit. This facility is also the interface between the Crary Lab control room where Erik and Nik monitor the antenna and the antenna itself. The two buildings are connected by a fiber optic link that is just over 1 mile long.





1. Erik Richards our neighbor across the hall and our generous tour guide.

2. The Wallops/McMurdo Ground Station facility. The white thing is the dome protecting the antenna and is affectionately called the “golf ball”. From what does the antenna need to be protected?

3. Located not too far from Arrival Heights, the dome sits an elevation of 150m. Why would it be important to have an antenna located very high? This is a view of McMurdo as seen from the dome. Ob Hill is in the background.

4. Erik opening the door to the dome.

5. The team taking photos of the antenna.

6. This picture was taken inside the antenna facility, the small building that stands just next to the dome. The room contains numerous computers that are monitoring the movement of the antenna and processing the information collected by the various satellites. Before you can enter you have to remove your shoes. What would be the purpose of this?

7. This room in the antenna facility is full of extra computers and technical equipment. Why would it be important to have so many backup parts?

8. While up there, Laurie and Scott take some photos of the beautiful view.

9. Inside the Crary control center. Our lab and office is just across the hall.

10. A TV monitor in the Crary control center allows Erik to monitor the antenna without having to be up in the dome.

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