‘Flying spaceships” may not sound like a job description that someone could have while commuting to Princeton every day, but that’s exactly the case with Michael Harrison, senior manager of U.S. spacecraft operations for SES.
SES is an operator of communications satellites that are used by cell phone providers, broadcasters, the government, and other clients around the world. The company has around 62 satellites, mostly over the U.S. and western Europe, and it controls them from a command center on Research Way in Princeton. (U.S. 1, August 6, 2014.)
Each satellite costs about $200 million, so Harrison is responsible for quite a hefty investment flying at thousands of miles per hour 37,000 miles away from Earth. SES operates about 50 satellites in geosynchronous orbit, far away from Earth but staying in the same spot relative to the planet — a fixed spot in the sky. They also have 12 satellites in low earth orbit, which are only about 10,000 miles up and going around the planet relative to the ground.
“People ask me, what do you do?” Harrison says. “I tell them I fly satellites for a living. The actual satellites in space. They’re like, wow.”
Harrison will speak at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, October 18, at 7:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club of Princeton. For more information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Keeping all those spaceships in their correct spots is a full-time job for SES. Once launched, inertia keeps the satellites flying around the planet, but space weather such as solar wind and gravitational changes constantly nudge them out of position. To stay where they are supposed to be satellites must fire their thrusters in precisely calculated bursts, receiving their programming from the ground control station at Princeton Forrestal Center. And that is mostly what goes on at the command center.
SES has never lost a satellite, but it is a risky business. An interruption in ground control could cause a satellite to crash, which is why the command center is supplied with backup generators. Before the new operations center was built in 2014, SES had facilities in three places in New Jersey. All of them stayed online during Hurricane Sandy thanks to backup generators.
Another thing that keeps satellite operators up at night is the sun. Even though satellites are shielded, solar flares can hit satellites with waves of electromagnetic radiation, causing electronics malfunctions. A much rarer event, a coronal mass ejection, could potentially send out waves powerful enough to knock out every satellite currently orbiting the earth.
Communications satellites spend their lives relaying signals from the ground, broadcasting signals for services like Direct TV, or sending signals from broadcasters to cable “head” stations. NBC is a major client of SES. The company can also provide internet service, although the delay in sending and receiving signals from the far-away geosynchronous satellites means that low-earth-orbit satellites are better for this task. SES plans to launch eight new low-earth orbit satellites to support its O3B plan to provide internet service to the “other 3 billion” of earth’s residents who live without internet access in developing countries. On the wealthier end of the spectrum cruise ships are another customer of satellite internet service.
Each satellite has about 15 years’ worth of fuel. When it’s time to retire a satellite, operators use its last bit of fuel to either slow it down so it falls out of orbit and burns up in the atmosphere (for low earth orbit spacecraft) or to blast it into deep space (for geosynchronous ones.)
Harrison says it’s an exciting time to be in satellite operations. Private space launch companies such as SpaceX, based in California, are steadily reducing the cost of launch, and new heavy rockets planned for the near future will allow SES to put bigger and better spacecraft into orbit.
“They have really turned the launch business upside-down,” Harrison says. “It’s become very cost effective.” SES was the first company to use SpaceX to launch a satellite into geosynchronous orbit, and the first to launch a satellite on SpaceX’s re-useable rocket. While traditional rockets fall back to earth after launching their cargoes, SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, has recently developed the technology to land the rockets safely, allowing them to be re-used.
“It’s an amazing thing to watch,” Harrison says. “They land the first stage at Kennedy Space Center, or a platform in the ocean, refurbish them, and launch them again. It cuts costs and saves satellite companies a lot of money.”
SES designs the satellites and contracts their manufacture to Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and other aerospace companies.
Harrison grew up in Hackettstown, the son of a National Guardsman and a nurse. He began his career in computer programming and found himself working in the research department of Sandoz when the company was in the midst of buying a new computer.
“It turned out the computer system we were leasing was the same one that was being used for orbit determination for satellites in space,” Harrison says. “I always had an interest in hands-on stuff, and having an opportunity to fly satellites was very intriguing.”
In 1975 Harrison joined Western Electric, which was the first U.S. civilian operator of satellites. He later joined RCA-Americom in Princeton, which joined with General Electric in 1981. His first position was satellite controller, a job which required him to send individual maneuver commands to his satellite.
Today the operation is more complex, and there is an entire department for flight dynamics that determines the maneuvers that each satellite will take, and then tests them in a simulation before sending them out. Managing dozens of satellites still requires a lot of human supervision and labor, and SES employs about 150 people at its Princeton command center, most of whom come from military backgrounds. Harrison says the company is actively working to improve the diversity of its workforce, and is looking for more minority and women engineers.