Satellites: How the internet works (or doesn’t) at South Pole

I’ve had a lot of people ask me, “How do you know when you have satellite/internet access at the South Pole?” A great question, because obviously we don’t just look in the sky, see a satellite, and say, “Oh look it’s time to check Gmail.” The following image shows our tracking/countdown system, “SatStat,” that tells us when exactly the satellites will be available.

SatStat

The first satellite to come up during the day is SKYNET, which as you can see is what I’m currently using. It comes up around 9:30pm our time and ends just before 2am. On a scale of slow to slowest, this one is just slowish but mainly due to the large number of people all using the bandwidth at once.

The second sat is GOES, which used to be the slowest of them all. Due to low traffic in the wee hours of the morning and some recent trouble shooting it has actually been pretty decent lately. Now, when I say decent, I mean that I can load my Gmail, timecard, and Bank of America with little struggle, but don’t ask me to do anything else. Our time with GOES and SKYNET doesn’t change, but it shifts forward four minutes every day.

Lastly we have SPTR (pronounced “spitter”), which is the fastest most awesome satellite we have. I can load Facebook (mbasic.facebook.com — not the real Facebook), submit my grad school applications, search for fun things to do in New Zealand, and read other people’s blogs. The downside—the amount of time we have on SPTR changes with each day. Sometimes we have an hour total that is divided into tiny chunks on top of the GOES pass, while sometimes like today we have close to four hours of SPTR time. Quite unfortunately, we do not get to use both the SPTR and GOES at the same time as it may seem. When SPTR comes on, GOES goes.

Due to limited bandwidth that is shared amongst all station residents and prioritized for science, we do not have access to YouTube or Spotify, and we cannot use Skype or other video-streaming chat services. Additionally, as I mentioned before, we even have limited access to Facebook, which can only be loaded through a basic site. While at times things seem very disconnected down here, it’s nice to have a break away from the constant buzzing of technology from back home where people are constantly texting, tweeting and reading BuzzFeed articles.

 

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