February 21, 2024
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Andrew Arena finds rewarding career as satellite engineer

Qwaltec is space systems operation firm contracting with NASA

Andrew Arena Andrew Arena
Andrew Arena

Data fueling weather forecasts online and on television come from satellites staying close to Earth and completing an orbit every 100 minutes. The spaces above the North and South poles — free of radio wave clutter — provide windows of around 10 minutes for satellites to relay information to the ground and vice versa. When that doesn’t go off as planned, Andrew Arena ’02 springs into action.

“The ground equipment must be configured to establish a secure connection with the satellite,” says Arena, a satellite ground systems engineer for Qwaltec, a space systems operation firm contracting with NASA. “We send a new batch of commands to the satellite, give it a new schedule to do X job at Y time and collect data, and we download the data that the satellite collected during its last orbit.”

The client for the satellite-gathered data is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the National Weather Service. NOAA doesn’t have expertise in satellites and flight, so that’s where NASA comes in. Arena works on a multi-agency project officially titled the Joint Polar Satellite System. It’s our nation’s Earth-observing satellite system tracking polar ice caps and gathering geological and weather data.

“Much of the government’s money is spent on the ground system,” Arena says. “Once the satellite is in orbit, unless an asteroid crashes into it, the satellite will keep working for years. The bulk of the work is within the ground system. I monitor and track discrepancy reports. I’m constantly writing reports about what the system isn’t doing that it should be doing, and then verifying the fixes were made.”

On a much larger scale, it’s akin to making an update to one piece of software on your computer only to find it has caused something else to stop functioning properly, giving you another repair.

“Just like any computer software, regular updates are required to the ground system,” Arena says. “Every time software is upgraded, there’s a problem, like a server has the wrong password or we have a broken connection and don’t know why. We check the logs and make sure that files make it to every expected stop.

“This job is fun if you like problem solving and you enjoy computers.”

Since graduating from Binghamton, Arena has had a number of different careers. He has always loved science as well as taking things apart and putting them back together. He believes his job provides what he had been seeking for years — a financially rewarding and intellectually stimulating career.

“When I was a kid, one of our window air conditioners wasn’t working, so I took it apart and was able to fix it,” Arena says. “Turns out that it had a bird nest in it that needed to be cleaned out. I’ve always had that interest in fixing things. I love to troubleshoot. I love to look at something and figure out how it works.”

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