Haleh Safavi: Redefining NASA’s Comms Infrastructure
By Danny Baird
March 31, 2021
Haleh Safavi wears many hats within the Exploration and Space Communications (ESC) projects division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. She’s redefining NASA’s communications infrastructure through persistent research and innovation and by mentoring the next generation of space communications professionals.
“I loved NASA from when I was nine. I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, but unfortunately in the place I was born that was not an option for the girls,” said Safavi, who was born in Iran but now lives just north of Baltimore. “My uncle was an electrical engineer. I loved him so much — I wanted to be like him.”
Shirking off expectations and following in her uncle’s footsteps, Safavi studied engineering, ascending to the highest levels of academia. In 2010, she received her doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Safavi’s thesis concerned hyperspectral image processing, which uses information gathered from multiple frequencies of light to develop a three-dimensional understanding of an object. Hyperspectral imagers have broad applications in disciplines ranging from biomedical imaging to Earth and planetary science.
When Safavi began her career with NASA, she focused on developing modems, which translate mission data into radio transmissions and decode signals received by spacecraft and ground stations. This work would ultimately lead her onto an effort to improve the data rates NASA supplies the International Space Station.
Ultimately, that project would furnish the space station with a staggering 600 megabits per second — roughly four times the average advertised speed of representative U.S. internet service providers, per a 2021 Federal Communications Commission report. The effort would make Safavi a finalist for the 2019 Women in Tech Challenge alongside her colleague Risha George. As part of this honor, they travelled together to Paris, sharing the importance of their work with the international community.
Today, Safavi’s portfolio includes a host of new and innovative technologies. She works on optical communications, which uses infrared lasers to provide missions with higher data rates and reduced size, weight, and power requirements. She also researches quantum communications, which uses the fundamental properties of energy to improve network security. All the while, she manages teams seeking to implement these capabilities.
One such team is developing a low-cost optical communications terminal, which is a telescope 70 centimeters (about 27 inches) in diameter that can receive data from on-orbit missions with optical capabilities. The terminal is comparable in size to the NASA-built ground stations that will support the optical terminal flying on Orion for the Artemis II mission, but developed using commercially available parts.
“The low-cost optical terminal will be a blueprint for future optical ground stations,” said Safavi. “We’re identifying gaps in optical communications for space use and helping industry to increase commercially available optical communications technologies as we grow the optical network.”
Using commercial components is generally less expensive than developing custom hardware. Off-the-shelf components can also make an architecture more scalable, making new ground stations easier to procure. As more NASA missions embrace optical capabilities, the low-cost optical terminal will serve as a template for implementing more optical ground stations.
Aside from her role on the low-cost optical terminal, Safavi works with university partners on optical communications technologies and burgeoning quantum communications research. Some of her collaborators include the University of Wyoming, Howard University, Tulane University, and the Army Research Lab.
“I'm just very interested in the next generation of engineers,” said Safavi. “I want them to have the all the key elements when they go into the outside world or when they get hired with NASA.”
In addition to working with partner institutions, Safavi mentors interns at Goddard participating in the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Internship Project (SIP). SIP pairs students with learning opportunities and projects that have a real benefit to NASA. Safavi’s interns have worked on a wide array of network improvements and groundbreaking research.
One of Safavi’s interns, Naveed Naimipour, has participated in SIP for four years working on a variety of advanced communications technologies. He also led an intern team developing plans for a quantum communications experiment. Safavi works closely with Naimipour, as she does with all her interns.
Outside of NASA, Safavi loves spending time with her family, going out to restaurants, and travelling. She’s visited many parts of the world, but is currently looking forward to a trip to Maine.
“I want to see the first sight of sunshine where it first hits the U.S.,” said Safavi.