Sandia LabNews

Sandians to spend New Year's readying first-ever Labs-integrated satellite for launch

Launch preparations for the Department of Energy’s Multispectral Thermal Imager (MTI) satellite begin during the holidays when the Sandia-integrated satellite — the Labs’ first — arrives at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., from Sandia/New Mexico.

Twelve Sandians will leave for Vandenberg at the end of the month and will spend the following several weeks readying the satellite for a scheduled Feb. 8 launch. After they flight-check the highly sensitive space equipment and reattach the bird’s four eight-foot-long solar panels, the satellite will be encapsulated and set on top of a four-stage stack of rocket motors.

During its three-year research mission, MTI will pass over Sandia/New Mexico in its polar orbit twice a day, each time delivering data to a communications center in Bldg. 890 and receiving instructions for the following day (Lab News, May 8, 1998).

Seeing the forest for the trees

MTI’s primary payload is a sophisticated telescope that collects day and night ground images in 15 spectral bands ranging from visible to long-wave infrared. The unique camera, which was calibrated in a special facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, gives the satellite the ability to "see" patterns of reflected and thermally emitted electromagnetic energy that are not visible to the human eye, with performance currently achievable only in a laboratory setting.

"We can see from space some things, such as trees in the early stages of disease, that you couldn’t see with your naked eye if you were standing there in the forest," says project leader Brian Brock (5711).

The satellite images the ground while measuring the water and ice-crystal content of the atmosphere above it to correct for atmospheric effects.

"It will be the most radiometrically accurate space instrument of its kind in the world," says Brian, "which is to say it’s very accurate for determining how bright something is, either from reflected sunlight or thermal emission."

It’s a research satellite

The satellite’s three-year mission objective is to advance the state of the art in multispectral and thermal imaging, image processing, and associated technologies and to better understand the utility of these technologies. Researchers at Sandia, Los Alamos, Savannah River, and other DOE facilities will compare MTI’s images to "ground truth data" simultaneously collected from several volunteer US sites instrumented on the ground by the Savannah River Technology Center.

Because the technology is expected to have a broad range of national defense and civilian applications, DOE has established an MTI Users Group comprising more than 100 researchers from 50 national security and civilian agencies. These researchers will conduct their own experiments on similarly instrumented ground sites using MTI data. Applications range from treaty monitoring to mapping of oil and chemical spills, waste heat pollution in lakes and rivers, vegetation health, mine tailings, and volcanic activity.

The satellite also carries a High-energy X-ray Spectrometer (HXRS) sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and developed by Space Devices, Ltd., of the Czech Republic. This instrument will collect data needed to better understand a rare species of solar flare associated with high-energy particle storms that can endanger astronauts and damage space equipment.

Spending the holidays in California

The satellite is being shipped Dec. 26 from Sandia to Vandenberg, accompanied by Brian and several members of the project team. Brian and team members Max Decker (5711), Greg Hughes (5715), and Dennis Gutierrez (5716) will celebrate New Year’s Day in California with the satellite. After the holidays approximately 20 Sandians will effectively be stationed at Vandenberg to complete launch preparations.

On Feb. 8 the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Test and Evaluation Directorate, will launch MTI into polar orbit using an Orbital Sciences Corp. Taurus rocket.

Sandia designed the satellite, built a full-scale test model, and integrated the flight-ready satellite with the support of various military, civilian, academic, and private-industry partners. Los Alamos National Laboratory calibrated the MTI payload prior to shipping. Los Alamos also will prepare and distribute MTI "data products" to various researchers. Savannah River Technology Center is responsible for interfacing with volunteer sites and collecting "ground truth" data.

MTI’s development was funded by DOE’s Office of Nonproliferation and National Security (DOE/NN), and the launch is funded by DoD through its Space Test Program.

Brian says all the Sandians involved in the project are excited about the launch. "We’ve done payloads before, but never a full satellite, and it’s a joy to see it completed," he says. "The team has worked extremely hard, and I am proud of their work and very grateful to their families, who have been so supportive during these last two difficult years of integration and test."