Network Security for Astronaut Missions to Mars
By Catherine Tresslar
August 12, 2020
With the current COVID-19 pandemic and unfolding national conversations about race in America, it’s been a challenging summer for many interns. These challenges make the successes of students like veteran intern Sienna Williams especially powerful.
Williams’ interest in space began early. Since kindergarten, she has dreamed of becoming an astronaut. While many people casually long to venture into space, her dreams remain the same almost fourteen years later.
“It’s been my life’s goal to be an astronaut. That’s what led me to apply to my first internship and what brought me to NASA,” said Williams.
Williams began her career with NASA as a high school intern in the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Internship Project (SIP) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. During her first two internships, she was a student at Clarksburg High School in Clarksburg, Maryland. Under mentor Ryan Turner, Williams contributed to SCaN Now, an intern-developed web application that visualized NASA network operations in real-time.
This summer, Williams returns to SIP having completed her freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), majoring in aerospace engineering. In addition to her studies at MIT, she also plays on their varsity basketball team and is the lead drummer in their neo-soul band, “Love and a Sandwich.”
Her summer project concerns a comprehensive study of communications systems in past and current NASA missions, and evaluates plans to keep astronaut data safe as we journey further into space. By the end of the summer, she will have drafted a research paper that comprises her findings while proposing recommendations for future missions. She hopes to publish this report in a technical journal, enhancing the visibility of her research to the general public as well as scientific and engineering audiences.
Williams’ work will be crucial for future human exploration missions to deep space, like crewed journeys to Mars. Communicating with astronauts on another planet is unchartered territory and comes with a new set of security challenges. Williams will be looking at the security of new technologies like optical and quantum communications in far-off environments that will have communication delays.
“I hope to bring outside-of-the-box thinking to NASA,” said Williams. “Optical communications and quantum communications are all very new and have so many exciting possibilities that come with them, but we need innovative solutions to tackle security issues that we may encounter.”
Through her research, Williams identified and addressed the biggest challenges of extended human spaceflight. These issues include the latency inherent to speed-of-light communications with far-off missions, solar conjunctions where the Sun blocks communications between Earth and Mars, and privacy and wellness needs of astronauts.
Williams considered how optical and quantum communications technologies could establish practically un-hackable networks. She looked at how innovations like Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking could provide astronauts with internet-like service in deep space, where direct links with Earth are not always available. She also identified the ideal orbit for a relay satellite capable of maintaining communication with Earth during solar conjunctions.
Williams’ day-to-day work consists of preparing for interviews, reading related studies, conducting literature reviews, and reporting her findings to her mentors, Julie Owens and Tara Dulaney. Though based at Goddard, she has expanded her network to incorporate the input of the larger NASA communications community.
Though Williams is one of SIP’s most seasoned interns, she faces new obstacles this year, posed by an entirely virtual summer. She misses the connections she was able to make on Goddard’s campus during previous internships. To help others facing similar challenges with isolation, she became a mentor for younger students in the program.
As a Black woman, recent instances of police brutality and resulting nationwide protests have added additional stresses to this summer. While the nation reckons with these renewed conversations about race, Williams has had to find a delicate balance.
“With systemic racism, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter Movement being brought to light by the media, I am compelled to fight for my rights and organized protests in my own community which led to burnout,” said Williams. “Even so, with the help of my mentors, I’ve managed to focus on my work while taking time for myself and engaging with the larger conversation.”
Upon graduating from MIT, Williams hopes to become a civil servant at NASA and, ultimately, a NASA astronaut. As part of the Artemis generation — the next group of young people to see humanity walk on the Moon — Williams is excited to see how her work this summer might advance NASA’s ambitions in deep space.
One day, those ambitions might just be realized in her footprints on the dusty red plains of Mars.