Watch this space - from Southland

Great South Engineering projects and ground segment station manager Robin McNeill, at the Awarua...
Great South Engineering projects and ground segment station manager Robin McNeill, at the Awarua Satellite Ground Station. PHOTO: ABBEY PALMER
Unless astronomically inclined, many people are unaware the world’s southern-most satellite ground station is right in Southland’s backyard. Abbey Palmer sat down with Great South engineering projects and ground segment station manager Robin McNeill to explore the region’s connection to space.

"Seeing what looks like big white golf balls from the road sort of mystifies everyone," Great South engineering projects and ground segment station manager Robin McNeill says.

Located just 11 minutes out of Invercargill, Awarua is home to Southland's very own satellite station.

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, Mr McNeill said.

Between 2008 and 2013 five Ariane heavy-lift launch vehicles were sent successfully to the International Space Station carrying food, water, oxygen and other supplies.

Invercargill resident Peter Collins said he had watched the Ariane 5 separate from the ATV and head towards the International Space Station while the Ariane 5

headed to the southeast, over Bluff.

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."

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 ground station area] flat, there's the ocean to the south, so there's no chance of [satellite] interference."

The self-titled "dish master", Mr McNeill is 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 master's degree student Kerry Clapham, who is on 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 orbiting the southern part of Earth] on weather patterns, images, telecommunication. Each customer has a purpose for what they need specific data for."

At a glance

Main functions of Awarua Satellite Ground Station. —

  • Monitors satellites
  • A data service provider
  • Engineering support
  • Radio spectrum licensing
  • Site civil works
  • Logistics
  • Telecommunications and IT
  • Mains and back-up power supply
  • First-line maintenance
  • Routine maintenance Security

For more information on the Awarua Satellite Ground Station and to access the visitors' guide book, visit www.awaruasgs.com

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