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The little satellite that could

Marisat, 24 years old, takes on new duties over Antarctica

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The numbers change slowly on the glowing screens in the control room as technicians keep watch on the health of the oldest commercial satellite in space, drifting slowly westward in the silence of space 22,300 miles above the equator. The space trek has just begun; some travel hazards lie ahead.

But after almost 24 years of service, the little satellite that won't quit, the redoubtable Marisat, has embarked on a new mission, one to enhance communications for scientists working in Antarctica at the remote Amundsen-Scott station, South Pole.

Marisat is uniquely qualified for the new mission. Ground controllers tightly maintain Marisat in an east-west direction in geosynchronous orbit, so it crosses the equator at the same spot above the earth. But it is allowed to roam harmlessly north and south in a huge looping gait, weaving back and forth, above and below, the line of the equator. This conserves fuel. So, at one point, Marisat slides about 13 degrees below the equator, allowing it to look over the curvature of the earth and "see" the South Pole, which other geosynchronous satellites do not serve.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), which coordinates all US scientific research in the Antarctic, finds the wandering ways of this senior space citizen to its advantage. The NSF plans to join Marisat with other communications links to relay scientific data, as well as voice communications, from the South Pole outpost, one of the remotest points on a continent that today is a giant scientific laboratory.

Data collected at the polar station shapes mankind's knowledge and understanding of basic climatic changes in the world.


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