Explore Satellites with Powerful Simulation Software
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The first man-made satellite, the Sputnik 1, was launched in 1957. As of late 2020, more than 2,600 man-made satellites orbit Earth, with a little over 70% of them in low Earth orbit. If you would like to delve into how satellites and their sensors are configured, or into how their orbits are planned—and do not shy away from a little programming—this project is for you! With the help of FreeFlyer®—powerful software that allows you to simulate satellite orbit and communications—you can explore this topic in great detail.
Satellites are used for many purposes and their role determines many factors of their design and chosen orbit. Simulations like the ones generated by FreeFlyer are an essential part of the satellite's design process and in determining the satellite's orbits. Simulations like these allow you to analyze each factor in isolation, and then visualize the effects in various ways.
Once you familiarize yourself with the software, you will find several interesting topics to study. Below is a short list of satellite-related questions that can be investigated using FreeFlyer. Once you familiarize yourself with the software, you will find many more!
- How does the orbit change if the physical properties of a satellite change? How do these influences change with changing altitude of the satellite's orbit?
- What is the influence of particular forces like lift and drag on a satellite's orbit? How do solar flares or variations in Earth's gravitational field influence the orbits of a satellite? How do these influences change with changing altitude of a satellite? Why is it essential to include a detailed model of all these forces in the planning?
- What orbit covers most of Earth? How can you choose an orbit so it has maximal contact with a particular ground station? What orbit or constellation (group of satellites working together as a system) would you choose to get good coverage of a given hurricane-prone region?
- How does the coverage change when switching from an LEO (low Earth orbit) satellite to a satellite with a higher altitude orbit, or what is the effect on radio transmission time when varying altitude?
- What is the effect of a defective antenna, or a different configuration of the antenna?
Once you familiarize yourself with the software, you can specify your central question. Unless you already have access to a computer with FreeFlyer installed and running, your first step will be to obtain a free student license and install FreeFlyer on your computer. The software will run on computers using Windows as the operating system or on a virtual system created on computers using Linux as the operating system. You can check the minimum system requirements to run FreeFlyer before installing FreeFlyer.
Follow these steps to get FreeFlyer running:
- Register online on the a.i. solutions registration webpage using your academic (.edu) or school email if you have one.
- Once you have received the registration approval email, return to the ai registration webpage, log in, and download the latest version of FreeFlyer from the Downloads area.
- Install and run FreeFlyer, it will give you detailed instructions for steps 4—5. Although it might happen faster, allow a few days for FreeFlyer's technical support to get back to you with the license file.
- Write down the computer information listed in the "Register a New License" dialog box. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org so they can send you a license file. Mention in your email the class or project that you plan to use the software for.
- Once received, load the license file in FreeFlyer. You are now ready to use FreeFlyer!
- Your license will most likely be valid for a semester. You can repeat the procedure if you need to update your license after it has expired.
There are a few easy ways get familiar with the software. The FreeFlyer Fundamentals training video is a series of three easy-to-follow videos with hands-on exercises. The FreeFlyer University Guide provides a more in-depth view; it is an introduction to orbital mechanics and spacecraft flight dynamics, in addition to an introduction to FreeFlyer. Once you are familiar with the basics, the FreeFlyer Software help files included with FreeFlyer are another valuable tool. You can also access it from within the software directly with a right-click on the element about which you would like help. FreeFlyer also provides sample mission plans. Check out the sample missions folder "Coverage and Contact Analysis." A sample mission can be used as a starting point for an exploration, to find examples of how a similar situation can be tackled, or can generate ideas of what is possible. Do a quick internet search for videos explaining the sample missions. For example, a How to Perform Constellation Coverage Analysis in FreeFlyer video can be found on the internet, which walks you through the "Constellation Coverage" sample mission plan.
As you do your analysis, be sure to check out the many graphing options available in FreeFlyer, as well-presented data can be an enormous help to clearly communicate complicated data. An example is shown below.
Figure 1. Visualization created with FreeFlyer depicting the coverage of Earth by a constellation of satellites. The dot colors represent how often that location on the globe was covered by a satellite from the constellation. Cones indicate the exact location of the satellites and the area on the globe they cover.
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