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NASA’s spacecraft exploring the solar system and Earth to send back essential science data to make discoveries

NASA‘s Near Space Network enables spacecraft exploring the solar system and Earth to send back essential science data for researchers and scientists to explore and make profound discoveries. Now the network has integrated four new global antennas to further support science and exploration missions. In December 2022, antennas in Fairbanks, Alaska; Wallops Island, Virginia; Punta Arenas, Chile; and Svalbard, Norway came online to provide current and future missions with S-, X-, and Ka-band communications capabilities.

These new antennas were created to support missions capturing massive amounts of data. Just as scientists are increasing their instrument capabilities, NASA is also improving its communications systems to enable near-Earth and deep space missions. This upgrade brings unprecedented flexibility to the Near Space Network and will enhance direct communication with Earth – the process by which a satellite takes an image and then sends it via radio waves to an antenna on Earth.

 This data is then processed and sent to scientists. The Near Space Network is managed by NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program office, which oversees the development and enhancement of NASA’s two primary communications networks: the Near Space and Deep Space networks. The Near Space Network provides communications services to missions through a mix of government and commercial assets. To develop these new antennas, the team worked with commercial partner Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT), which built the Chilean and Norwegian antennas, while NASA developed the other two in Virginia and Alaska.

Four antennas are now operational and integrated into the network’s catalog of services, expanding its capabilities to support science and reconnaissance missions that utilize enhanced equipment. Now, missions using the network will be able to send back terabytes of data for processing and discovery. An example is the upcoming Plankton, Aerosol, Clouds, Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, which will help researchers better understand ocean ecosystems and carbon cycling and reveal how aerosols can support phytoplankton growth at the ocean surface.

“Missions like the PACE satellite involve high-resolution scientific instruments,” said Damaris Guevara, project manager for the network upgrade. “These instruments require advanced space communication capabilities like Ka-band to get all the data back to Earth.”

The new antennas will also have new network capabilities

All four ground stations are equipped with a delay/disruption resistant network (DTN). DTN will enable missions with unmatched connectivity by storing and forwarding data at points along the network to ensure critical information reaches its destination. DTN is an advanced communications capability being developed and tested by NASA’s SCaN and Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Additionally, to improve mission teams’ access to data, the network includes cloud-based data storage services. Satellites like PACE will link their data to an antenna, and that data will go through the ground station’s high-speed data processors to cloud storage and data access services that will allow mission teams to retrieve data more quickly and from almost anywhere. This reduces hardware requirements and lowers overall storage costs.

Several missions, including the NASA-Indian Space Research Organization Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) satellite, will benefit from this new infrastructure and advanced capabilities. Launching in 2024, NISAR will measure Earth’s changing ecosystems, dynamic surfaces, ice masses and more. With four new antennas around the world, the Near Space Network is expanding its capabilities to support science and exploration missions that use improved instrumentation. Now, missions using the network will be able to send back terabytes of data for processing and discovery.

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