NIKA's four antennas sucessfully pass major milestones, progressing to operational readiness. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Ka-band Advancement Initiative Making Significant Strides

NIKA Antennas Approaching 2021 Operational Readiness

By Katherine Schauer

November 12, 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 Though accurate at the time of publication, it is no longer being updated and may contain broken links or outdated information.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.

NASA is advancing its space communications capabilities, ensuring missions of the past, present, and future can transmit high-resolution data and enable new scientific discoveries. The Near Earth Network Initiative for Ka-Band Advancement (NIKA) is enhancing data return capabilities by establishing tri-band antennas at four locations around the globe. The antennas will increase network flexibility by providing legacy and future missions with the options of X-band, S-band, and Ka-band. Those leveraging Ka-band’s higher data rates will be able to send back more science and exploration data than ever before.

Throughout the last few months, the project has made significant progress on the antennas while also implementing two significant network innovations.

Currently, NIKA’s four antennas are each in a different stage of development. NASA is developing two antennas, with one located in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the other on Wallops Island, Virginia. In August, the manufacturer successfully installed the first antenna at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks’ Alaska Satellite Facility where it went through site acceptance testing. These tests verified the antenna is properly installed, confirming it could send and receive data and track satellites as they pass overhead.

The Wallops Island antenna is currently preparing for its factory acceptance test at the vendor’s facility. This factory testing will measure the antenna’s performance before it is shipped to Wallops Island. Testing occurs prior to site installation to avoid expensive, onsite modifications of the antennas and is a key milestone in the delivery process.

NASA’s commercial partner, Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT), recently completed tracking, telemetry, and command (TT&C) testing for its two antennas, confirming the antennas can send and receive data to and from spacecraft prior to site installation. These antennas are bound for Punta Arenas, Chile, and Svalbard, Norway.

With the TT&C testing finalized, the manufacturer shipped the first antenna to Svalbard and completed site installation. The Punta Arenas antenna is currently conducting additional Ka-band and S-band tracking before shipment to Chile. After testing, the manufacturer will ship the antenna to Punta Arenas for installation and site verification testing.

The NIKA team is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellite – also known as NOAA-20 - to test the NASA and KSAT antennas’ Ka-band networking capabilities. NOAA-20 is one of the only operational Ka-band satellite systems in orbit, making it an ideal testbed for the antenna.

One of NIKA’s first users will be NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Clouds, ocean, Ecosystem (PACE) mission. Launching in 2021, PACE will help researchers better understand how the ocean and atmosphere exchange carbon dioxide and reveal how aerosols might fuel phytoplankton growth on the ocean’s surface. The high-resolution science instruments on PACE require advanced space communications capabilities, like Ka-band, to get the entirety of its data back to scientists on Earth.

NIKA will also allow PACE to embrace revolutionary communications technologies like cloud-based services and Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN). DTN will empower missions with unprecedented connectivity, storing and forwarding data at points along the network before reaching its destination. DTN ensures mission-critical data makes its way to researchers.

In October 2020, the DTN project officially released the ground software after passing multi-node testing. Now, NIKA is working with the DTN and PACE teams to implement DTN software at the four NIKA ground stations.

NIKA is also creating cloud-based services for missions like PACE, increasing researchers’ access to data. Satellites will downlink their data to a NIKA antenna, and that data will go through the ground station’s high rate data processors to the Data Acquisition Processing and Handling Network Environment (DAPHNE) 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. It will also reduce hardware requirements and lower overall storage costs.

The work done on this project will serve as a template for future ground station development for commercial sectors. NASA is evolving to a more commercialized space communications era, and the NIKA ground stations will play a key role in this change. By March 2021, NASA’s Near Earth Network Initiative for Ka-Band Advancement will be operational, ready to support missions and propel space communications capabilities into the future.