Post-launch operations are equally as important as pre-launch testing and integration. Especially when this is the first satellite you have ever launched, this can be a very apprehensive phase for most researchers. We are here to help. Here are some tips on what to do after you have launched your satellite into space and are ready to dive into the research.
First off, since it is your first satellite, make sure its transmitting a signal that can be easily detected. An example of this is a continuous wave (CW) beacon. If your satellite is transmitting a CW beacon that is continuous and in short intervals, its making good communication. The CW beacon is transmitted on amateur frequencies (VHF/UHF) which can also be accessed by ham radio operators. The beacon transmits in Morse code, so if the signal is picked up by someone else, they will be able to notify you of the transmission. When you receive the CW Beacon, you then have confirmation that the satellite has been launched from the pod, the antennas have been deployed and the satellite is then functioning properly.
Next, you need to locate the orbital parameters (TLEs) of your satellite so you can track it during its mission. The satellite’s orbital parameters will keep changing during the first week of the mission. If you are able to receive the TLE mathematically by applying the signal you received, the time you received the signal, the position of the antennas and the duration of the signal then you can pinpoint the satellite’s orbital parameters. If you are unable to locate the orbital parameters of your satellite, then you can use the TLEs of a satellite that was launched along with yours. Since they were launched together, both satellites will be in the same vicinity along with the deployment pod. These TLEs will work for a day or two, but then they become obsolete, since the satellites drift apart. When this happens you will need to keep listening for your satellite in the area of the initial TLEs. The TLEs are obtained by North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD). NORAD tracks all objects that are launched into space and will give the object’s TLE information on their website. Larger payloads are detected first and smaller ones, in the case of CubeSats, are then detected in the order of their size. It may take up to a month for NORAD to locate and track your satellite. Once you have the TLEs of your satellite, then you need to contact NORAD and let them know that it is your satellite. Orbitron is a popular tool used to get the satellite’s position and track it using the TLEs from NORAD. A screenshot for Orbitron is shown below.
When you have the TLEs and you have tracked your satellite, you can send it commands, get a systems update and other telemetry. If your satellite is equipped with an imaging payload, you can also command it to take images and send them back to you. It is, however, recommended that you do this after you are satisfied with the overall health of the subsystems.