The newly modified STPSat-6 Antenna and Ground Equipment (SAGE) project antenna at NASA's White Sands Complex in White Sands, New Mexico, will support multiple payloads, including NASA's Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). Credit: NASA

Enhancements to Space Network Support Experimentation and New Partnerships

By Matthew D. Peters

June 24, 2020

This blog post was written prior to a reorganization of ESC’s projects and networks in support of the agency’s commercialization effort. Though accurate at the time of publication, it is no longer being updated and may contain broken links or outdated information. For more information about the reorganization, click here.

NASA's Space Network is forging new partnerships and enabling bold new experiments through ground station enhancements in support of the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program Satellite 6 (STPSat-6). STPSat-6 hosts nine experimental payloads, including a NASA demonstration of encoding and transmitting data using infrared lasers.

The ground station enhancements, known as the STPSat-6 Antenna and Ground Equipment (SAGE) project are being completed by NASA’s Space Network (SN), which is managed by the Exploration and Space Communications projects division out of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The main SAGE enhancement is a new 9.1-meter diameter S- and Ka- dual radio frequency (RF) band antenna. The new antenna provides a high-rate RF data downlink to all the satellite’s payloads and is the command and telemetry link for the satellite, itself. SN operators will control the satellite from the STPSat-6 Satellite Operations Center, located at the SN’s White Sands Complex in White Sands, New Mexico.

“The SAGE enhancements are a unique project for the SN,” said T.J. Crooks, the task monitor responsible for the contractor’s execution of the SAGE enhancements. “The SN is excited to establish a new relationship with the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program, and we are confident both organizations will benefit from this relationship well into the future.”

The SN provides near-continuous RF communications coverage to science and exploration missions in low-Earth orbit. Since the 1980s, the SN has added new Tracking and Data Relay Satellites and upgraded its ground stations as technology advanced and the needs of its users changed. These decades of experience make the SN uniquely qualified to provide RF communications to STPSat-6.

An important aspect of the new antenna is its dual-band capability, meaning it can transmit and receive two different bands, or ranges, of the RF spectrum simultaneously, S- and Ka-band. The dual band capability helps avoid S-band radio frequency interference from other antennas at the White Sands Complex during test events.

One of STPSat-6’s payloads is NASA’s own Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). Optical communications uses infrared lasers to communicate data with potential data rates orders of magnitude larger than comparable RF systems. However, that does not mean RF is obsolete. Even though NASA designed LCRD to demonstrate optical relay capabilities, it still benefits from an RF connection to Earth.

LCRD will be able to perform experiments with various formats of optical data under differing circumstances. The changes in format will be made using the RF link. These experiments will help NASA to determine operational best practices for optical communications. Similar to Ka-band, optical communications can also be disrupted by atmospheric interference, so NASA depends on SAGE’s RF enhancements, rather than optical, to control the LCRD payload and gather telemetry.

The agency depends on robust partnerships to complete its mission. Its partnership with the Space Test Program is simply one in a long history of working with other government agencies, academic institutions and commercial industry. These partnerships benefit all organizations involved. In the case of STPSat-6, this partnership could ultimately benefit the advancement of science and space exploration through increased data rates, thanks to the experimental payloads aboard.