First engineering test image from SeaHawk-1 and Hawkeye. Credit: NASA
NEN, wallops flight facility, cubesat, SeaHawk-1, ACCESS, NSN 

NASA's Near Earth Network Proves Robust Capability For SeaHawk-1 and Future CubeSat Missions

By Tessa Iglesias

August 20, 2019

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 Though accurate at the time of publication, it is no longer being updated and may contain broken links or outdated information.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

In July, after the culmination of multiple tests, the Near Earth Network (NEN) made history by successfully tracking SeaHawk-1, the first ever CubeSat supported by the network, at a data rate of 50 megabits per second (Mbps). This is a much higher data rate than CubeSats can usually support, representing a huge step forward for the future of networking.

CubeSats have a shorter lifespan than traditional satellites, but are much smaller, and can be produced more quickly and at lower cost. They usually support low data rates of less than five Mbps. The NEN is a worldwide network of ground-based antennas, which provides spacecraft with direct-to-ground communications services. The NEN traditionally supports larger satellites at data rates up to 300 Mbps.

If CubeSats can reach higher rates of 50 Mbps or more, they will be able to support robust scientific discovery alongside larger satellites. The capability to transmit at higher data rates for space missions allows for an increase in science data, which in turn facilitates more science and research discoveries. This, combined with their lower cost and quicker production, could make CubeSats far more common than they have been in previous years.

SeaHawk-1, developed by the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) in collaboration with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is a precursor to a constellation of CubeSats for the Sustained Ocean Color Observations using Nanosatellites mission that will observe ocean color as a way to study ocean biology that could affect Earth’s climate. To accomplish this, SeaHawk-1 uses an optical sensor known as Hawkeye, which takes images of Earth to monitor ocean color and health. This science data returns to Earth through the NEN.

The NEN was able to make contact with SeaHawk-1 at such a high data rate because it is the first CubeSat to use the X-band radio frequency. X-band antennas can typically support up to 500 Mbps. Clyde Space, a company headquartered in Glasgow, United Kingdom, which specializes in CubeSats and other small satellites, built the X-band transmitter.

The NEN completed this historic test at Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, VA. Next, SeaHawk-1 will repeat the same tests at Alaska Satellite Facility in Fairbanks, AK. Once completed, SeaHawk-1 will become operational and may change the industry for CubeSats altogether.

This amazing feat will set up the NEN to track more CubeSats in the future at higher data rates than ever before, further evolving scientific discovery and space exploration by providing innovative and mission-effective space communications solutions.