IN DEPTH: Star struck in a world of satellites and secrets

IN DEPTH: Star struck in a world of satellites and secrets

Inside Optus' Sydney Satellite Earth Station

Optus Satellite's Paul Sheridan

Optus Satellite's Paul Sheridan

Credit: Optus

A long worn-out road leads to the plot of land where the Optus Sydney Satellite Earth Station resides.

Located in Belrose, the Earth Station isn’t particularly exciting at first glance. A towered covered with small satellite dishes greets visitors near the driveway. But looks can be deceiving; the facility houses a number of models or rockets and satellites as well as interesting memorabilia serving as constant reminders of its rich history.

Sitting on a fibre link, the site area covers 27,900 square metres with one main building and one equipment building. According to the telco, it is already at full capacity.

The fibre link connects all the Optus Earth Stations across the country as a means of redundancy should one facility fail.

Guided by the head of Optus Satellite, Paul Sheridan, ARN was given a tour of the Sydney facility.

Optus’ own company history is intertwined with the Belrose Satellite Earth Station. The telco began life as Aussat, a Government-owned company which was launched in 1979 and became a publicly-owned company in the 1980s.

On 11 July 1985, Aussat opened the Sydney Earth Station and the very next month it launched its first satellite, the Aussat A1, to supply communications services for consumer and military purposes as well as television services to remote regions.

Faced with mounting debt, the company was eventually privatised through its sale to Optus Communications in a consortium arrangement.

While Optus was eventually snapped up by Singapore-based telco, SingTel, satellite continues to be a huge part of its business.

Broadcast services remain the predominant service Optus supplies via satellite. Of course, the company also does satellite broadband services and will play a bigger role in this space thanks to a $200 million deal to provide interim satellite services as part of the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout.

Major accident

To date, Optus has launched nine satellites although one did explode shortly after launching from China. That was Optus B2, launched in 1992. It is the first and only major accident in Optus’ satellite history.

The B2 tragically exploded with its spacecraft during its flight. It never made it into space and the debris from the explosion fell back to Earth resulting in fatalities.

B3 went up without a hitch two years later.

Belrose controls the satellite fleet of B3, C1, D1 and D2.

D3, which operates under a different frequency band, is managed through the Canberra facility.

Over 80 satellite operators around the world have leveraged the Belrose Earth Station’s expertise to support their satellite launches during the transitional orbit phase to its geostationary orbit phase.

These satellites are sent up to space in rockets from launch sites across the world. They are mainly located near the equator.

The A-series satellites, dubbed Spinners for their cylindrical shape, were first of Optus’ fleet to be launched. Their lifespan was set at 15-years but that was extended before they were eventually de-orbited.

In 1992, the first of the B-series satellite were sent to space. The new series saw the introduction of the now familiar box-shaped satellite (the cylindrical design was dropped) for a more compact design.

The fleet provided the world’s first satellite-based land mobile communication services.

In 2003, the C-series was introduced. At the time the, the C1 was the largest hybrid commercial and military satellite operating in the Ku, FSS, UHF and Ka bands in the world.

The D-series is the latest fleet of satellites from Optus. D2 is the only satellite in the entire fleet to operate on the broadcasting satellite service (BSS) spectrum.

Optus 10, the next step in the telco’s satellite journey, is slated for a 2013 launch and will be able to provide high quality broadcast and two-way communication services across Australia and New Zealand.

While the satellite themselves are fascinating, all the fun stuff happens in the satellite control centre.

Due to Optus Satellite’s dealings with the Department of Defence, ARN was able to tour the room but we were unable to take photos.

As the name suggests, the clandestine room sends commands to and monitors the condition of each active satellite. It is decked out in electronic equipment, some older than others since satellites are progressively launched and older satellites require older systems to run them.

Two satellite operators man the control centre at all times each pair working 12-hour shifts from 7am-7pm and vica versa. They are the only people authorise to control the satellites and engineers would submit requests for them to execute. They also look after the general well-being of the satellites and communicate with them.

It requires not just knowledge of the systems to become a satellite operator in the control centre. These people are prized for their ability to react to emergency situations and passion for their field of work.

One of the operators gave us the rundown of the control centre in painstaking detail, going through the history of the room as well as interesting tidbits about Optus satellite.

While the satellites are geo-stationary – that is, they stay at a fixed position relative to Earth – they can often shift out of its designated position, or orbital slot, due to the shape and tilt of the planet. Through the control centre, satellite operators can gently nudge them back into place.

The Broadcast Operation Centre was also off-limits when it came to photographs for Optus client confidentiality reasons.

The room looks like a TV master control room, littered with screens showing broadcast from different Optus Satellite clients. This is to ensure everything is working properly.

Viewer access satellite television

As the Federal Government switches off analogue TV services across the country, digital services are introduced as a replacement. But digital transmitters are unable to cover the same distance as analogue transmitters so a group of people in remote and rural Australia will have to rely on satellite.

“This is done through viewer access satellite television (VAST) which will receive the same signal as you would through a digital transmitter,” Sheridan said.

Trevor Clay is one of the staff working in the broadcast operation centre. He was one of the original staff working at Belrose since it’s first opened so has been working at the facility for over 25 years.

“I’m just intrigued by the fact that [science fiction author and inventor] Arthur C. Clarke proposed a three satellite world communications system in 1945 and it took 20 years to eventuate,” Clay said. “There are a massive number of them up there now.”

In the ‘backyard’ of the Belrose Earth Station sits several satellite dishes, large and small. All of them usually face East where the Optus satellites and their designated orbital slots are.

On end of the yard sits Optus’ telemetry, tracking and control (TTC) antenna which is able to track satellites from east to west rapidly. During this leg of the tour, Sheridan pulled out his smartphone, loaded up and app which could locate the satellites and eagerly showed it to us on the screen.

At that point I realised the Belrose facility is more than just satellite dishes and services to customers. The staff have a real passion for their work with satellites and seeing that really brings Optus Sydney Satellite Earth Station to life.

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Tags Telecommunicationsdepartment of defencesingtelAussatOptus Sydney Satellite Earth Station

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