Helping Explore for Oil in the Beaufort Sea

Business trips don’t normally require five connecting airplane flights to reach a customer, but an Intelsat General engineer recently had such a travel experience as part of a project to install a Ku-band satellite antenna and terminal on board Canada’s only commercial ice breaker. The flights took him to the tiny Inuvik village of Tuktoyaktuk, located in the very northwest corner of the Northwest Territories. After a short stay, he boarded a small boat for a three-hour voyage over the cold Beaufort Sea, heading north to reach the ship Polar Prince.

IGC’s assignment actually began with an equipment failure. As part of a satellite communications contract with Network Innovations of Calgary, technicians hired by Intelsat General had installed a satellite antenna and a new terminal aboard the Polar Prince when the ship was in port at Victoria, British Columbia. But two days after the ship left Victoria to head north, the antenna stopped working due to what was later determined to be a component failure.

“We just felt that we had to get it fixed because they needed it for an oil exploration project,” said IGC’s representative. “I told my boss I had to make the trip to take care of this problem.”Polar Prince

The satellite antenna installation was undertaken on behalf of Geokinetics, a Houston-based geophysical services company working on an oil exploration contract in the Beaufort Sea. Using three small boats, Geokinetics laid fiber optic cable and sensors in the shallow water of the exploration area. The boats then fired pneumatic air cannons into the water and the sensors picked up seismic data created as the shock wave bounced off the rock formations beneath the sea floor. Technicians on the Polar Prince collecting the data needed to transmit it via satellite to Houston for analysis of structural traps that could contain hydrocarbons.

Once Intelsat General learned of the problem with the first satellite antenna, the company shipped a second system to Tuktoyaktuk, a name that is Anglicized from an Inuvialuit word meaning “resembling a caribou.” The village is accessible only by air in the summer months, but can be reached by an ice road on the frozen Mackenzie River during the winter. IGC’s engineer reached the village by first flying to Chicago, then taking succeeding flights to Edmonton, Norman Wells and Inuvik. The final 100-mile leg to Tuktoyaktuk was aboard an aging DC-3, with the passengers seated on the left side of the plane and pallet loads of cargo stacked on the right side.

Once aboard the Polar Prince, IGC’s engineer and the crew determined that the first antenna, mounted high above the deck on the forward part of the ship, could not be safely taken down at sea to be repaired. So instead, he and a technician from Integral Systems traveling with him temporarily installed the new antenna on the stern of the ship, behind cargo boxes. For now, this only provides connectivity to Intelsat’s Galaxy 18 satellite when the ship is on a north, east or west heading. When heading south, the antenna is blocked by the ship’s mast. Once the ship returns to port, the antenna will be properly mounted above the deck in place of the malfunctioning unit.

Our engineer spent five days abroad the ship, a converted Canadian coast guard icebreaker specially equipped for seismic surveys. The trip back to Tuktoyaktuk took six hours because the Polar Prince had sailed further north in its surveying project.

“And then the trip home involved six flights, with a stop in Yellowknife added,” he said. “We made it as far as 70 degrees north latitude on the ship. I was only seasick twice and that was primarily due to the diesel fumes from the engine.”