Joint NASA/Commercial Effort Completes Major Milestones

By Katherine Schauer

April 20, 2021

Svalbard, Norway Antenna Installed and Tested Credit: NASA

NASA and commercial partner Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) are revolutionizing direct-to-Earth communications services for NASA’s Near Space Network based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The Near Space Network Initiative for Ka-band Advancement (NIKA) effort is establishing four tri-band antennas around the globe in Fairbanks, Alaska; Wallops Island, Virginia; Punta Arenas, Chile; and Svalbard, Norway. These antennas will provide past, present, and future missions with S-, X-, and Ka-band communications capabilities, bringing unprecedented flexibility to the network and enhancing direct-to-Earth communications.

Since NIKA’s previous update in November 2020, the team has made significant progress.

- KSAT successfully installed the antenna and radome at the Svalbard ground station. The two components passed site acceptance testing, ensuring they were properly installed and can communicate with missions. The ground station is now almost ready to support missions.
- KSAT also installed the antenna and radome at the Punta Arenas ground station. Due to new COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, engineers stopped short of completing site acceptance testing, but hope to resume soon.
- Over the last six months, NASA has completed further testing on the Fairbanks NIKA antenna, which was installed in August. The NIKA team is currently working on upgrading software based on testing results.
- NASA completed preparations to install the Wallops Island antenna, pouring the foundation for the antenna pads. Now, the site is ready to receive the antenna and radome from the vendors this summer. After installing the antenna and radome, the station will go through site acceptance testing.

All four sites are incorporating Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN). DTN will empower missions with unprecedented connectivity by storing and forwarding data at points along the network to ensure critical information reaches its destination. Goddard’s DTN infusion effort delivered DTN software and hardware to each ground station. These units have already been integrated into the NIKA Fairbanks, Wallops, and Svalbard antenna ground systems.

Accomplishing these milestones did not come without challenges.

Punta Arenas, Chile Antenna Installation Credit: NASA

To install NIKA’s cloud-based storage system, the Data Acquisition Processing and Handling Network Environment (DAPHNE), two Goddard engineers journeyed to Norway, spending over a month away from home. Due to COVID-19 protocols, the two engineers flew to mainland Norway in early April, spent 10 days in quarantine, received multiple COVID-19 tests, and then travelled to the remote Svalbard Islands. There, they spent three weeks installing and testing DAPHNE as part of the Svalbard ground system.

DAPHNE is a cloud-based storage and data access service that will allow mission teams to acquire their data faster and from almost anywhere. Missions will downlink their data to a NIKA antenna, and that data will go through the ground station’s high rate data processors to DAPHNE.

Ground station efforts like NIKA take immense commitment from NASA engineers and commercial partners. The Advanced Communications Capabilities for Exploration and Science Systems (ACCESS) project oversees the NIKA project and plans to finish it in late 2021.

Once completed, NIKA will support science missions like the Plankton, Aerosol, Clouds, ocean, Ecosystem (PACE) and the NASA-Indian Space Research Organization Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) with four new, tri-band antennas. These antennas will offer missions unprecedented flexibility and enable them to send back more science and exploration data than ever before.

Come back soon for another NIKA project update.