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Astronautical Engineering Course Spotlight – Ground Systems Engineering

Flight Ops Engineer: Ground Station, we are ready for acquisition of signal.

Ground Station: Copy! We see the bird and a sweep is under way.

Flight Ops Engineer: Roger!

Ground station: The sweep is complete. You are go for command!  

Flight OPS Engineer: Copy! We have acquisition of data. We’re receiving telemetry, Wait! What is that? Two reaction wheels just failed and the spacecraft has started to tumble.  The spacecraft has initiated an RTS for entry to safe-mode. Start the investigation and prepare a recovery procedure.

ground systems engineering student

As an astronautical engineering bachelor’s student at Capitol Technology University, this could be a scenario you encounter when you command and control a simulated satellite in real time in Capitol’s Space Flight Operations Training Center (SFOTC).

Made possible by technology developed and donated to Capitol Technology University by the Hammers Company, the SFOTC is a mission control center-like environment equipped with a spacecraft ground system (known as the Galaxy Telemetry and Commanding System) that is used on various NASA and commercial missions. It also houses spacecraft simulators, a spacecraft station contact clock, and software for orbit determination and analysis. Together, these resources enable students to experience what it’s really like to run a mission.

Unique to Capitol’s program, working and learning in the SFOTC is a part of the required coursework for all astronautical engineering majors, so no student misses the opportunity to experience applying their education to the center’s real-life inspired scenarios.

Although there are plans to expand the offered courses in the SFOTC, bachelor’s students can currently take up to a total of four courses being taught in the center: AE-150 Introduction Into Space, AE-250 Ground Systems Engineering, AE-350 Autonomous Ground Systems (or as students call it "advance spacecraft operations training") and AE-454 Spacecraft Dynamics and Control.

Professor Marcel Mabson and Professor Rishabh Maharaja, who founded the center along with Professor and Astronautical Engineering Chair Angela Walters, are excited about the opportunities available to students through the center. “Capitol has a unique program with the SFOTC,” says Mabson. “There aren’t a whole lot of schools that have this. Unless you have a real control center with a real spacecraft mission, your students are just reading out of books. And you can teach it out of a book, but you don’t really see it and you don’t experience it.”

“By the time you become a senior student, you not only have a subsystems level of experience, but you also have operations and anomaly related experience,” adds Maharaja. “It’s like a flight school. From day 1 you have to understand what happens when anything goes wrong as well as all of the systems in that aircraft. Satellites are very similar to that when it comes to operations.”

Wanting to know more about just what we could learn in the Space Flight Operations Training Center, we asked the professors to tell us about one of the classes they teach, AE 250: Ground Systems Engineering.

Professor Maharaja explains, “The class has four major learning goals: Real time command and control, mission planning, flight dynamics, and telemetry trending analysis. AE 250 provides a good overview of ground systems that are within what is called a mission operations center or a MOC. The MOC is analogous to what we have at the SFOTC in the McGowan building, but it also extends into a little bit of the ground systems side of things, like the antenna centers that actually receive a lot of this satellite data. We’re talking about what is going on in the space network as well as the ground network side of the various different segments.”

Students can expect to learn how telemetry, or data, comes down to a satellite, how to read and interpret that data to predict what the satellite will do, and how to send commands to the satellite. “AE 250 provides a great intro to the situational awareness of various different satellite systems,” says Maharaja.

“There’s the mission planning aspect,” he continues, “where we are able to show students how to, in a very generic way, build these mission sequences and upload them to the spacecraft. And then viewing the telemetry to make sure that you know your spacecraft did that action.”

These mission sequences are like instructions that you send to the satellite. Professor Maharaja encourages students to, “think of a satellite as a big fancy robot that we threw up in space. So it’s no different from a Roomba, it’s just a lot more complex.  A Roomba has to be told which room to go to and where to vacuum clean, similarly a satellite has a set of mission sequences that it needs to do something.”

“For the 250 final they actually do what we call a week in the life” says Mabson. “Rishabh and I present the students with a schedule we call passes. - Passes is when the satellite is in view of a ground station. - For 7 days we say here’s a contact for all your spacecrafts and each team - teams of 2 - has to schedule when they are going to be on console, and they have to upload the commands, download data, and make sure everything is okay. So they are getting those hours.”

It’s a class built around inspiring confidence in our students. The professors explain that many of the students who come into 250 have never done anything like this before and are often nervous to command a satellite.

“Think of AE 150 as getting your feet wet, and one thing I like about 250 is that initially you bombard them with a lot of theory, and then when students start doing the live it’s almost like pushing them into the water. Lightbulbs start going off – oh I remember this from class! So initially there’s a bombardment of information and then when they get into the lab it’s like OH!” says Maharaja.

“My favorite thing is the end of the semester,” adds Mabson. “They’re at their final week, they are doing their day in the life and it all starts to click in their minds. Oh, this is what telemetry looks like, oh I understand how to transmit a command to the spacecraft, oh the spacecraft did A, B, C, D, oh I can check on my checklist. To see them all start to work together and have it all become familiar and second nature. The whole point of this is that they can get on a console and it’s second nature and they know what they’re doing.”

Capitol alumni working in the field are encouraged to reach out to the SFOTC. If you have any great anomaly experience that you would like to share with us, our professors love using your content to build scenarios for Capitol classes. To reach out to us, please email SFOTC@captechu.edu.

Interested in learning more? Additional information about the center can be found here.

Tags: Astronautical Engineering