31 August 2020

It was put into orbit at 8:18 pm from Cape Canaveral, USA, to join the SAOCOM constellation. This is a historical event for the Argentine space industry.

The Argentine earth observation satellite, SAOCOM 1B, belonging to the Argentine National Space Activities Commission (CONAE, in Spanish), was launched on August 30, at 8:18 pm (Argentine time), from the SPACEX company facilities in Cape Canaveral, USA, on board the Falcon 9 launcher. It was the result of more than ten years of work, with the contribution of more than a thousand professionals and 80 organizations and companies of the national scientific and technological system. It completes the SAOCOM constellation, our country’s most ambitious space mission. It will provide important services for agricultural production and environmental emergency management, among other benefits. Together with SAOCOM 1A, it also completes the Italian-Argentine System of Satellites for Emergency Management (SIASGE, in Spanish).

The launch was closely followed by the highest national authorities. “In the midst of a complex pandemic and all its difficulties, we did not give up this undertaking that began in 2007. In this context, let’s celebrate and be proud of all these scientists,” said the Argentine President, Alberto Fernández, at the end of the launch broadcast. “Looking at our scientists standing up, working, excited because they saw that their labor made sense, I thought ‘It is quite fair that Argentina has invested in all these people.’ Congratulations, Argentinians! today we are a little better than before.”

Raúl Kulichevsky, Executive and Technical Director of CONAE, speaking from the United States, said: “Thanks to the work and ability of our professionals, we are enormously proud and satisfied. The SAOCOM 1B is already flying in perfect conditions. Greetings and congratulations to all who put their grain of sand to make this possible. Thank you very much, with all my heart.”

The activities for the launch started at 9 am with the first communications and verifications among all the headquarters and ground stations involved. In addition to the 13 Argentine professionals that commanded the operations from SpaceX, another 60 engineers of CONAE, INVAP, the GEMA laboratory dependent on the National University of La Plata (UNLP, in Spanish) and the state-owned company VENG provided their support from Buenos Aires City and Córdoba and Río Negro provinces.

At 8:04 pm, Pablo Ordoñez, in charge of the SAOCOM 1B launch, confirmed SpaceX that the Argentine satellite was ready to be launched. At 8:18 pm, it finally left for its orbit, located at 600 km from the Earth.

The following operations were the recovery of the Falcon 9 launcher first stage, including 5 Merlin engines, and the separation of the satellite from the launcher, which took place some minutes later. At 8:30 pm, the satellite in space was contacted for the first time when it passed Lima’s ground station, Peru. Then, the SAOCOM 1B completed its first automatic maneuvers, deploying the solar panels to charge the batteries and turning on the GPS. From that moment on, the Mission Control Center at Teófilo Tabanera Space Center dependent on CONAE (located in Falda del Carmen, Province of Córdoba) began receiving the satellite telemetric data and communicating with the rest of the groups. Monitoring continued as the satellite passed over Tierra del Fuego and then over the North Pole station, where Córdoba took control and executed the first commands on the platform.

“Weather conditions were pushing us, but clouds eventually opened up and allowed the launch. Everything came out perfectly. Adrenaline has gone down a bit now, but we keep on working because we have to open the antenna panels and prepare the propulsion system to reach the final orbit. At this pace, we have three days of work ahead to check all the details in order to verify everything is fine,” said Lucas Bruno, head of operations of SAOCOM mission in Córdoba.

Then a series of critical activities began, which took about 36 hours. During this time, the satellite was constantly controlled and monitored to remotely perform the deployment operations of the huge 35-square-meter Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) antenna.

During the first days in orbit, communication with the satellite is achieved with the support of ground stations located in Norway, Kenya, Antarctica, Kerguelen Islands, Peru and the USA, with which cooperation agreements have been signed, and of two ground stations dependent on the CONAE network in Argentina, one of them located in Córdoba and the other in Tierra del Fuego. After that, tests are carried out during several months for operational start-up; that is, until the SAOCOM 1B starts to produce images, available to users, after being cataloged, in the “SAOCOM Products” section of CONAE website.

“We are delighted and feel a great relief for having reached such an important milestone. It is an incomparable satisfaction,” expressed Josefina Pérès, SAOCOM Project Manager. “We still have a lot of activity ahead this night,” she added.

The SAOCOM satellites were developed and manufactured in the country by CONAE together with INVAP, main contractor of the project; the VENG company; the Argentine National Commission of Atomic Energy (CNEA, in Spanish); GEMA laboratory, dependent on the UNLP, among other 80 technology companies and institutions of the Argentine Scientific and Technological System. Besides, it had the collaboration of the Italian Space Agency (ASI, in Italian). The SAOCOM constellation is also part of the Italian-Argentine System of Satellites for Emergency Management (SIASGE, in Spanish) created by CONAE and ASI.