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CHIPS Articles: SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic Celebrates 20th Anniversary Supporting Critical NSF Operations in Antarctica

SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic Celebrates 20th Anniversary Supporting Critical NSF Operations in Antarctica
By Diane Owens - January-March 2017
For the past 20 years, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Atlantic employees have provided meteorology services, air traffic control, systems engineering and maintenance, ground electronics maintenance, information technology/security and operational logistics support in Antarctica. Their work enables scientists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct groundbreaking research.

“We are very proud to be teammates in the critical science mission at the boundary of human existence on the planet, said SSC Atlantic Commanding Officer Capt. Scott Heller. “In a world challenged by global warming, understanding what is happening at our world's poles is more important than ever. The science in Antarctica has always been essential... today it is even more urgent. Our employees contribute to the safety of members of the scientific community and keep them productive,” he added.

SSC Atlantic Executive Director Chris Miller flew to Antarctica in 2012 to see firsthand the work done there and to meet the staff. “Antarctica is extremely hard to describe in words and must be seen to be appreciated,” he said. “It’s an incredibly remote, stark and desolate continent where you can see and experience nature at its most dramatic. It also remains almost exactly as it was long, long before human beings ever arrived. The environment enables unique and critical scientific research.”

Challenges
Supporting researchers in polar regions involves unique challenges:
-- Power availability is limited. Every device requiring power must be run by a generator, alternative energy, such as solar, wind, batteries or other sources. This is exceptionally challenging for siting airport equipment and designing systems for the deep field.
-- Medical facilities are limited, so employees who deploy must meet stringent medical and dental requirements. This affects staffing plans, contracting schedules and general deployment readiness.
-- Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest, highest and harshest continent in the world. Weather is extremely volatile, and many operations depend on an accurate weather forecast. Obtaining and retaining experienced talent is essential to forecasting unpredictable weather phenomena.
-- Access to the continent is generally dependent on sunshine availability. During austral summer (October - February), the sun shines 24 hours a day, and when it sets for the year, darkness sets in 24/7 for more than 100 days straight during austral winter (March - September). This funnels most activity into a narrow window of opportunity for engineers and technicians to plan, deploy and execute projects — and it influences all parts of the acquisition lifecycle.
-- Antarctica has very limited network bandwidth via satellite communications. The shared bandwidth for up to 1,000 people during peak season at McMurdo Station is about the equivalent of that in a typical American home. As a result, NSF employees must closely manage their network while designs for operational systems and procedures for using them must minimize data transfer on and off the continent, where practical.
-- Airports are built on continuously moving ice. This requires much more frequent resets and realignment of runway lights and navigational systems. For example, skiways for Williams Field (NZWD) at McMurdo Station move about a foot a day as the ice flows toward McMurdo Sound.
-- There is no cellphone connectivity. Mobile communications are limited to legacy communications systems, such as high frequency spectrum, and to mobile satellite devices such as Iridium phones. Engineers designing systems must limit communications within those systems to one of the few available technologies.
-- Supply ships arrive once a year after an ice breaker clears passage to the ice pier at McMurdo Station. Project planning for larger systems that are transported via surface vessel must have very robust acquisition schedules that can absorb long transportation requirements.
-- Workers who “winter over” in Antarctica are isolated for months at a time. Recently, a limited number of planned flights have been scheduled and accomplished during the winter months. These flights are enabling new opportunities for scheduling and executing projects normally confined to austral summer.
-- The extreme cold has detrimental effects on systems. Some critical components, such as battery cells, lubricants, etc., freeze at extreme temperatures. While most equipment specifications for military use are either -40 C or -55 C, many applications in Antarctica necessitate much lower operating temperature capabilities and require skilled engineers and technical personnel who understand this need.
-- Many high-profile visitors, including flag officers, SES-level government employees, congressional members and staff, and senior government officials visit each year. Secretary of State John Kerry toured McMurdo in November. These visits focus national and worldwide attention to the program and significantly increase press coverage, accentuating the need for accurate weather forecasting, reliable systems and safe air traffic control services.

SSC Atlantic Polar Programs

NSF funds and manages the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). Scientific disciplines studied in Antarctica include astronomy, atmospheric sciences, biology, earth science, environmental science, geology, glaciology, marine biology, oceanography and geophysics.

NSF has a dedicated group of employees who plan and direct USAP operations while drawing resources and logistical support from many federal civilian and Defense Department agencies, as directed under Presidential Memorandum 6646 signed by President Ronald Reagan Feb. 5, 1982.

Currently, the Secretary of the Air Force is the executive agent for DoD efforts supporting NSF in the polar regions. SSC Atlantic’s support focus is on aviation command and control systems and services, along with core engineering and technical services in areas such as communications and information security. NSF levies other agencies’ capabilities under reimbursable agreements which, when combined, enable the world-class science that continuously originates from the continent.

In 1985, SSC Atlantic (then Naval Electronic Systems Command or NAVELEX) employees and contractors began supporting USAP when called upon by Naval Support Forces Antarctica (NSFA), now decommissioned, to engineer and install an air traffic control radar at McMurdo Station. Immediately after, additional engineering support for various communications systems upgrades, and meteorology systems updates and installations occurred.

In October 1997, SSC Atlantic assumed all air traffic control and operational meteorology responsibilities from the decommissioning NSFA and continued to be the engineering services provider for aviation, meteorology and communications systems. SSC Atlantic employees and contractors have provided these services for 20 consecutive years.

McMurdo Station

McMurdo, the primary USAP logistics center, is located on the southern tip of Ross Island, Antarctica, approximately 850 miles north of the South Pole. While SSC Atlantic employees provide some technical and operational support for South Pole Station in the interior of the continent and Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula, deployed personnel primarily reside at McMurdo Station.

Approximately 45 SSC Atlantic government personnel and contract employees spend the austral summer season “on the ice” at McMurdo Station providing required services, with a minimum staff of four or five contractors remaining on-site during the austral winter. These numbers included engineering project personnel who may not spend extended time there but deploy based on individual project requirements. SSC Atlantic has also led the way in minimizing the number of personnel who deploy to the continent each season, accomplishing this through application of technology and use of carefully crafted operational processes and procedures.

In addition, the SSC Atlantic Remote Operations Facility (ROF) in Charleston, South Carolina, provides operational forecast services to support all U.S. assets on the continent of Antarctica. The ROF provides air traffic control services and general support for Antarctic flights. Individual pilot briefings are provided using video conferencing tools linking personnel from Charleston to Christchurch, New Zealand, before any southbound mission.

ROF capabilities enable the SSC Atlantic team to augment deployed personnel, increase capability and improve work-life balance for program participants who would normally deploy each season. SSC Atlantic will continue to explore new ways to use technology and seek operational solutions to further reduce deployed personnel. This aligns with NSF strategic planning to conduct a major modernization of McMurdo Station in the near future with a goal of greater efficiencies, capabilities and support to research scientists.

Meteorology

Antarctica, which wasn’t discovered until the 19th century, contains vast mountains layered in a mile or more of ice and an active volcano, and has an ever-changing land mass as ice melts and reforms. The terrain and rapidly changing extreme weather presents unique challenges to researchers and support personnel alike.

SSC Atlantic meteorologists must consider a myriad of factors when predicting weather for pilots, ship captains and station or camp support personnel on the continent of Antarctica. Frigid temperatures, strong winds, crystalline snow (smaller than a grain of sand), glaciers, mountainous terrain, snowstorms, white-outs, icebergs, fog and blizzards all present unique challenges and hazards. They must also factor in extreme elevation changes; flights departing from McMurdo Station’s sea-level air fields may land at stations or camps at altitudes of 10,000 feet more.

Intercontinental flights generally originate in Christchurch, New Zealand, which is 2,415 miles north across the Southern Ocean. Adding to the complications of normal forecasting is the length of time it takes to complete a flight from New Zealand and the ever-increasing chance that unpredictable weather can impact aircraft flight.

Forecasters calculate the point of safe return for each flight as the last location that a pilot can return to the point of origin with sufficient fuel, in the event of sudden weather changes. Pilots occasionally do turn around and return to the departure site, but these “boomerangs” cost taxpayers money for used fuel, wear and tear on the aircraft, and labor for everyone from aircrews and passengers — to logistics ground personnel on each end.

Accurate weather predictions by SSC Atlantic forecasters are essential to avoid the high cost of aborted missions, delayed flights and personnel safety — and to enable cargo and supplies delivery, as well as routine operations. Meteorologists study near real-time satellite images, numerical models, time-lapsed weather information and input from human observers to generate forecasts.

SSC Atlantic engineers have designed or modified systems to provide critical information to weather personnel including commercial off-the-shelf portable weather stations mounted on skis, remotely controllable with fixed camera, and kits for deep field usage. They leveraged Iridium satellite communications to transport sensor output for real-time forecaster analysis.

NSF offers limited webcam views to the public from McMurdo that update every 30 seconds at https://www.usap.gov/videoclipsandmaps/mcmwebcam.cfm.

Air Traffic Control

Three airfields near McMurdo Station are built on snow and ice to support heavy-lift wheeled C-17 Globemaster aircraft and LC-139 Hercules ski-aircraft. Williams Field (NZWD) is a snow airfield specifically for skied aircraft. Pegasus Field (NZPG) and the new Phoenix Field (NZFX) have hard ice surfaces and can support wheeled operations. Each location has unique operational requirements and challenges and serves a specific purpose for the USAP.

SSC Atlantic air traffic controllers are responsible for the safe flow of air traffic in and out of these airfields. Williams Field has a small air traffic control tower built atop skis and equipped with all necessary communications and meteorology systems for controlling aircraft approaching or departing the airfield. In addition, air traffic controllers also manage the McMurdo Sector of the Auckland Flight Information Region from McMurdo Air Traffic Control Center — augmented by Charleston ROF personnel.

Employees work around the clock and track thousands of aviation operations in Antarctica each year including inter- and intracontinental fixed-wing flights and all McMurdo-area helicopter operations. There is no longer air-traffic control radar at McMurdo and all control is provided under non-radar control rules. However, by using technology and leveraging products across other government agencies, such as Automated Flight Following from the National Forest Service, controllers’ situational awareness is greatly improved. Further enhancements will continue as aircraft and infrastructure continue to reach the 2020 compliance requirements for operating in national airspace.

Cybersecurity

In recent years, SSC Atlantic expertise has been tapped to assist with NSF cybersecurity efforts. Government and contractor personnel help NSF to develop security policy and monitor compliance. As part of this effort, aviation and meteorology teams rely on proper cybersecurity planning to ensure robust and well-planned contingencies are in place.

During the coastal evacuation for Hurricane Matthew in October, the ROF in Charleston was temporarily closed, but thanks to the close partnership with NSF and joint efforts to plan for and provide contingency capabilities, no services were sacrificed. Routine cyber operations were performed by NSF’s contractor in Denver, Colorado.

Emergency Evacuations

Over the years, SSC Atlantic employees from Charleston ROF provided meteorological and air traffic control services for several successful evacuation flights off the continent during austral winter, when air travel is generally suspended.

Due to the maturity of the ROF, these operations have been more like routine support than emergency actions. Requirements and planning are different for these missions but once the evacuation is approved and begins, SSC Atlantic provides the same level of quality the special mission pilots and crew receive at any other time of the year.

Program Personnel

Matt Rushing, Polar Program integrated product team lead, is responsible for all SSC Atlantic polar programs systems engineering and operational support provided to NSF, including necessary systems and services for aviation, meteorology, communications and numerous supporting functions. He attributes much of the program’s success to employees’ dedication, experience and collective length of time on the job. He noted that the team is planning for the future and trying to bring in new professionals to learn from experienced colleagues so they can take the reins someday.

“A lot of work is done with very few people ‘on the ice’ since many tasks are done remotely, and this encourages innovation by SSC Atlantic personnel in technology, the use and application of technology, and in providing routine support.” He noted that polar program participants are some of the best-rounded at the center because they gain so many different skillsets. Many people continue their careers supporting the warfighter in center leadership roles. Extreme cold weather engineering expertise and other knowledge gained in the program benefits the Navy as a whole.

“It’s a dangerous and unique environment to work in, and it’s not for everyone,” Rushing added. At times polar support can be highly stressful but through it all, SSC Atlantic’s safety record is excellent.

Rushing also noted that personnel deployed to Antarctica develop symbiotic relationships with polar scientists, and are able to apply current scientific findings to their work, while scientists benefit from SSC Atlantic employees’ technical expertise and experience.

Meteorology administrator Art Cayette, who provides government oversight to polar contractors, was stationed in Antarctica during his active duty Navy days, and 30 years later he continues to be passionate about his work keeping personnel safe. “It’s the most humbling occupation ever,” he said.

Coy Johnson, who managed the first Antarctic radar installation in the 80s, retired from SSC Atlantic and continues to work in the Air Traffic Control Sub-Portfolio as a contractor. He recalls that McMurdo Station was quite “rustic” in the early days, and that it took eight hours to travel by U.S. Navy Hercules LC130 ski-plane from Christchurch, New Zealand, to McMurdo.

Retired Navy commander Dave Kelch, senior operations advisor to the Polar Programs IPT lead and the competency lead for Aviation Command and Control Operations, said, “People in the polar programs are dedicated, and they’re very good at what they do. They love what they do and they’re pros.” Before joining the SSC Atlantic team as a Navy civilian, Kelch was the Navy’s Head of Airspace and Air Traffic Control in Washington, D.C.

Rhona North, SSC Polar Programs information system security manager, has spent time in Antarctica, and recalls that, after donning cumbersome outdoor gear and goggles to protect her eyes, she once transported updated IT equipment from one building to another on a sled. That’s an experience few IT professionals encounter.

SSC Atlantic’s first 20 years partnering with NSF in Antarctica have been an unqualified success; its employees look forward to continuing their support enabling scientific research and keeping operational systems up and running during the next 20 years “on the ice.”

As commanding officer Heller said, “At one level, polar support is one effort among 850 other concurrent efforts at SSC Atlantic that make our world safer, but on another level, the science at the Poles has the potential to address the most important questions of our time.”

Diane Owens is a senior writer, manager of the Daily News blog and editor of the Chronicle Lite employee newsletter at SSC Atlantic.

SSC Atlantic is a Navy IT and cyber engineering command that provides information warfare solutions to the warfighter. The SSC Atlantic team rapidly delivers and supports information warfare solutions that enable naval, joint, national and coalition warfighters. SSC Atlantic develops, acquires, and provides life cycle support for Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, Information Technology (IT), and Space Capabilities. A leading-edge Navy engineering center, SSC Atlantic designs, builds, tests, fields and supports many of the finest frontline C4ISR systems in use today, and those being planned for the future. Visit http://www.public.navy.mil/spawar/Atlantic/ for more information.

The Microwave Landing System at the newly commissioned Phoenix Airfield (NZFX) is one of many systems currently supported by the SSC Atlantic Polar Programs Integrated Products Team; a U.S. Air Force C-17 is parked behind it.   SSC Atlantic photo
The Microwave Landing System at the newly commissioned Phoenix Airfield (NZFX) is one of many systems currently supported by the SSC Atlantic Polar Programs Integrated Products Team; a U.S. Air Force C-17 is parked behind it. SSC Atlantic photo

SSC Atlantic Executive Director Chris Miller appreciated the opportunity to visit Antarctica project sites and observe deployed employees in action in the challenging polar environment. SSC Atlantic photo
SSC Atlantic Executive Director Chris Miller appreciated the opportunity to visit Antarctica project sites and observe deployed employees in action in the challenging polar environment. SSC Atlantic photo

Rhona North, SSC Atlantic Polar Programs Information System Security Manager, poses at the ceremonial South Pole located about 180 meters from the geographic South Pole; the South Pole Station appears in the background.  SSC Atlantic photo
Rhona North, SSC Atlantic Polar Programs Information System Security Manager, poses at the ceremonial South Pole located about 180 meters from the geographic South Pole; the South Pole Station appears in the background. SSC Atlantic photo

Meteorology Administrator Art Cayette monitors the performance of SSC Atlantic forecasting and observation services for the U.S. Antarctic Program at the Remote Operations Facility in Charleston, South Carolina. SSC Atlantic photo
Meteorology Administrator Art Cayette monitors the performance of SSC Atlantic forecasting and observation services for the U.S. Antarctic Program at the Remote Operations Facility in Charleston, South Carolina. SSC Atlantic photo

SSC Atlantic technician Mike Rugg releases a weather balloon at McMurdo Station.  Weather balloons carry a small radiosonde that transmits data to the weather office for collection, analysis, and further distribution and measures winds, temperatures and pressures as it ascends through the atmosphere.  SSC Atlantic photo
SSC Atlantic technician Mike Rugg releases a weather balloon at McMurdo Station. Weather balloons carry a small radiosonde that transmits data to the weather office for collection, analysis, and further distribution and measures winds, temperatures and pressures as it ascends through the atmosphere. SSC Atlantic photo
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