Landsat 7 Flight Operations Transition to New Home Now Complete

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Life in satellite flight operations is busy enough without the disruption of uprooting and moving an entire Mission Operations Center (MOC). Yet that’s been the reality for the Landsat 7 MOC as it transitioned this spring into a new address at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

color photo of interior of Landsat 7 Mission Operations Center

A look inside the new Landsat 7 Mission Operations Center at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

(Public domain.)

In a cost-savings move, NASA and the USGS have decided to house the future Landsat 9 mission operations alongside Landsat 8 flight operations under one roof. They’re going to call it the Landsat Multi-Satellite Operations Center (LMOC), and it’s taking over the space that has been home to Landsat 7 mission operations for the past 18 years.

To accommodate that, the Landsat 7 MOC was moved into empty available space in Building 25 on the Goddard campus—a transition that was completed April 13, 2018, when L7 flight operations went fully functional at the new site. A ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new L7 operations center is set for June 21, with U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Director James Reilly in attendance.

Renovation work has begun in the old L7 MOC site in Goddard’s Building 32The NASA Facilities Management Team at Goddard is spending this spring and summer tearing down walls, painting, setting up furniture, and more. If all goes as planned, the USGS hopes to start putting its own equipment into the LMOC space starting Aug. 1, 2018.

To this point, it’s a transition that appears to have inflicted minimal disruption on the 12-member Landsat 7 Flight Operations Team (FOT) that, like its counterparts in the Landsat 8 Mission Operations Center, follows a daily route largely devoid of adrenaline-pumping excitement.

“Moving our control center has been interesting,” says Tammy Vajo, a flight operations engineer with Landsat 7. “It’s been just a different direction for us to work with beyond just learning about the spacecraft. Just learning, you know, how to move a control center, and what’s involved in a control center.”

Such extracurricular activities are uncommon for a Flight Operations Team whose daily rhythms fall into three different areas of responsibility:

  • The offline operations engineering staff keeps tabs on the health and safety of the spacecraft, monitoring telemetry coming back to Earth and looking for any anomalous trends. “If the spacecraft does something it’s not supposed to do,” Vajo said, “the offline team looks into what it did and why. How can we fix it, or can we live with it?”
  • The real-time operations group sits at the console and interacts with the satellite from contact to contact. They take the first contact from the satellite at the start of the day, and set up automation for the evening when no one is at the console, sending up commands to the satellite as it passes over a ground station.
  • And Mission Planning and Flight Operations plans the daily command load for the satellite, such as what images are to be acquired. It’s also responsible for keeping the satellite in its proper orbit.

There’s a routine to those jobs, said Tom Cooke, Landsat 7 lead operations engineer, that stretches into long, incident-free days of ordinary time.

“I’ve heard our job described sometimes like firemen,” Cooke said. “You can fall into that routine. The challenge then is to not get lulled into complacency … because when the bell goes off and something bad is happening, you have to be able to respond to it.”

The bell does go off. Maybe the satellite is in the middle of a planned burn to maneuver it and suddenly there is no telemetry. “You’re not seeing things, and you’re trying to resolve that real time, and you have limited time to do everything,” said Kurt Leonard with Landsat 8 Flight Ops. “That definitely gets your blood going.”

Heading into 2018, Landsat 8 Flight Dynamics had counted seven occasions when it either had to move the satellite out of harm’s way because of space debris, or had to alter planned orbit maneuvers in response to approaching debris.

With Landsat 7, there likewise have been nine occasions when the Solid State Recorder (SSR) on the satellite locked up, causing what flight team members call a “choke anomaly,” meaning imaging operations by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper (ETM+) was not working. Nor was the FOT getting any telemetry data.

Though the standard procedure for addressing that issue the first six times always resolved the problem, that didn’t happen on the last occasion in September 2017. So, after careful consideration and study among many interested parties, the decision was made to turn the SSR off and then back on, much the way people do with a hard drive on a computer that freezes.

“That sounds simplistic,” Cooke said. “There was a very real chance that it wasn’t going to come back on. I’ve been on missions where that’s happened.”

This time, however, it worked.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter where the Mission Operations Center is located. Say, for example, in the evening or at night when FOT members get alerts at home about issues that need their attention. It could be anything; the automation they have in place will send them messages for any number of scenarios, Leonard said. Most times, they can resolve those issues without having to go back in.

For the big stuff, however, like an alert on an SSR choke anomaly, FOT team members will converge back at the control center to assess and address the situation. Going forward for the Landsat 7 team, that rendezvous will now happen at their new MOC address.

Vajo, for one, said it has been an interesting transition. You’ve got the challenges of keeping operations going while the move was taking place, she said. And you have so many details to consider, like the necessity of ensuring that there are primary and redundant sources of power at the new site so that they can always maintain contact with the satellite.

“There was just a lot going on,” Vajo said. “It was just exciting and fun. There were so many things we needed to learn and do.”