Logistics in Space: What’s It Take to Launch a Satellite?

The following guest article is brought to you by The Physics Society, in promotion of World Space Week 2020: Satellites Improve Life. Find out more at @thephysicsociety!

WSW 2020

Who knew an object the size of a school bus could capture pictures of more than 100 billion galaxies around our universe? From Sputnik’s three week orbit in 1957, to satellites being launched into space every few days today, we have come a long way in our presence in space. Not only do satellites help us capture gorgeous images beyond what we can see grounded on Earth, they are also used in fields of Meteorology, Agriculture, Intelligence, and Geology.

Satellites have gone up to 13.2 billion miles away from where they took off, making us wonder. What’s the effort and work it takes behind the scenes to send 6 tons of orbiting aluminium into space?

The word “logistics” often connotes to behind the scenes work, here highlighting the background work of scientists and engineers for the launching of satellites. It is no surprise that transporting satellites as heavy as 10 tons halfway across the world is no easy task. With costs of the satellite and its counterparts going up to $1.3 billion, it is essential to take into account every little obstacle faced during the transportation of a satellite to its launch site. Furthermore, the several parts of a rocket often travel thousands of miles to reach the launch site and experience vibration and disturbances during the journey. This results in extremely costly damage, so logistics in space exploration are never taken lightly. 

An essential part of the logistics is preparing the launch site and the rocket-powered vehicle used to transport the satellite into the orbit. This process is usually done by a private company and a country’s military often steps in to help with the logistics in terms of transportation. Following this, there is a long and tedious integration process that involves ensuring that the components of the spacecraft fit into the launch vehicle including rigorous testing to ensure extremely high reliability and safety of all the counterparts. The final phase is the physical integration of the launch vehicle and the spacecraft. The spacecraft is attached to a launch vehicle adapter that is then placed on top of the launch vehicle on the launch pad, using a crane. This process is usually done 10 days days before launch day. 

Launch day is rather expectedly, the most exciting day of the process. The spacecraft crew pump fuel and input commands that help configure the spacecraft. The countdown begins and at T-0, the journey of exploration begins. 

Space shuttle taking off. Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Logistics play an important role after satellites have already entered space too. When satellites enter space, they are ejected from the rockets which they were attached to at a very specific speed. The logistics team in the ground control station monitors the motors of the rocket to adjust its speed and direction as the satellite enters a particular elliptical orbit. This helps align the movement of the satellite in the path in which it is supposed to move in accordance with the Earth’s gravitational pull, as it maintains its circular orbit for years to come.

Although the work which goes into the launch of satellites is tiresome, these satellites help us with logistics in our own daily lives as well. Be it our daily navigation while using a GPS, or checking the weather app on our phones helping us decide if we should bring an umbrella when we leave, the world would be a completely different place without satellites watching above us every second of our life. 

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