Perseverance Rover with sample tubes (Artist's Concept). Credit: NASA/JPL

Perseverance and Launch Support

Network Engineers Empower First Leg of Rover’s Long Journey to Mars

By ​Danny Baird

July 27, 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 Though accurate at the time of publication, it is no longer being updated and may contain broken links or outdated information.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.

The long journey to Mars begins with the excitement of a launch.

During July and August of 2020, Earth and Mars are in good positions relative to each other for landing on Mars. On July 30, NASA’s Perseverance Roverformerly Mars 2020 — is scheduled to ascend from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle. Networks Integration Management Office (NIMO) engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Space Network engineers at the White Sands Complex in Las Cruces, New Mexico, will be crucial to this first leg of Perseverance’s journey.

The Perseverance Rover is a part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, which has studied the Red Planet through robotic exploration since 1994. Perseverance will address high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, including key questions about the potential for life on Mars. The mission will seek signs of habitable conditions in Mars’ ancient past and look for clues of past microbial life itself.

Launch vehicle network director Evette Conwell will oversee communications for the Atlas V launching Perseverance. However, on July 14 — just two weeks before Perseverance’s slated launch date — she had a lot of other landmark missions on her mind.

Conwell was coming directly from the Network Integration Center, the room where Goddard network directors can oversee NASA’s vast communications infrastructure. There, she had been monitoring communications for the launch of another Mars mission, the Emirates Mars Mission “Hope Probe.” The spacecraft would be the United Arab Emirates’ first interplanetary mission.

The satellite was launching on a Japanese rocket from Tanegashima Space Center, Japan. The rocket was designed and launched by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a Japanese company. This launch would be the first time NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program would support a commercial launch by a foreign company. Usually, NASA’s international communications services agreements are with government space agencies.

Though the launch slipped due to inclement weather — it would ultimately launch on July 19 — Conwell still had much to do. She had another launch planned the following day.

On July 15, she supported the launch of a classified satellite on a Minotaur 4 rocket for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office from Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. This would be the first U.S. Space Force launch from Wallops and the first Wallops Minotaur Launch since 2013, when NASA launched the Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Environment Explorer, and the U.S. Air Force launched Space Test Program Satellite-3 (STPSat-3) from Wallops.

The Minotaur rocket family is built by Northrop Grumman and powered by Cold War-era Minuteman and Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile technology. The Minotaur program repurposes decommissioned missile parts from the U.S. Department of Defense’s nuclear arsenal to launch national security, science and technology demonstration missions.

“My team has been extraordinarily busy supporting the large number of launches on our schedule,” said Conwell. “Many of these launches represent months of preparation, developing the service agreements that will best support each mission.”

As launch vehicle network director, Conwell oversees communications for launch vehicles seeking to use NASA’s communications resources. Specifically, many launch providers rely on NASA’s Space Network for the service levels needed to ascend to orbit successfully. The network can provide near-continuous communications from the launchpad through low-Earth orbit and beyond.

The constellation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) makes this possible. TDRS satellites relay data from spacecraft through geosynchronous orbit to ground stations in New Mexico and Guam. A geosynchronous orbit — about 22,000 miles overhead — allows the spacecraft to stay stationary relative to a point on the ground as the Earth rotates. The Space Network to service the entire globe with TDRS in just three nodes: one over the Atlantic Ocean, one over the Pacific Ocean, and one over the Indian Ocean.

The Atlas V ferrying the Perseverance Rover to orbit will use TDRS at all three nodes and both ground stations. Once at the ground, data will be sent through the NASA Communications Network (NASCOM) to the Network Integration Center and mission control centers at Kennedy and the United Launch Alliance. NASCOM is the vast ground network that carries data between far-flung ground stations and mission controllers.

As the rocket ascends, navigation engineers at Goddard’s Flight Dynamics Facility will provide critical flight dynamics services to the mission. They will monitor the flight in real-time, ensuring the TDRS point at and accurately track the Atlas V for the duration of the launch.

The communications support for Perseverance looks very similar to other ULA launches. Still, there are some unique circumstances surrounding the launch.

The first is that the Near Earth Network’s Launch Communications Segment (LCS) will shadow-track the launch. LCS is a newly completed series of ground stations that can provide communications and tracking services to vehicles launching from Kennedy. Shadowing the launch provides LCS with a valuable testing opportunity as it prepares to support the Artemis missions, tracking the Space Launch System as it ascends to the Moon.

“Shadow tracking gives our team valuable experience as we gear up for the Artemis missions,” said LCS operations manager Dave McCormick. “Missions like Perseverance are validating the services that LCS will provide astronauts journeying to the Moon and beyond.”

The second difference is the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed some operating procedures at the Network Integration Center. Usually, employees sit two-to-a-console. Now, masked network engineers sit one person per area — about 12 feet apart — out of an abundance of caution.

“We’re proud of the measures we take to ensure our Networks provide outstanding telecommunications support as an essential contribution to the success of NASA’s missions,” said NIMO chief Jerry Mason. “We have been able to continue to provide robust and reliable communications services, even during the current pandemic.”

Finally, the high-profile nature of the mission makes the launch all-the-more exciting. Network engineers support dozens of launches a year, but few have as much buzz as a NASA mission to Mars.

“One morning, I saw news coverage of Perseverance on TV, and it was exciting to see them covering one of my launches,” said Conwell. “I’m so proud to help see the rover off on its journey to explore parts of Mars we’ve never seen before.”