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

New Ka-band Antenna Passes Major Milestone

NIKA Project’s Alaskan Antenna Completes Factory Acceptance Testing

By Katherine Schauer

July 8, 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 Though accurate at the time of publication, it is no longer being updated and may contain broken links or outdated information.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 Near Earth Network (NEN) Initiative for Ka-band Advancement (NIKA) is enhancing direct-to-Earth satellite communications for missions near Earth and out to one million miles away. The NIKA project will establish four new tri-band antennas to significantly increase data rate capabilities for missions in space. On June 3, 2020, the first of the NIKA antennas successfully completed factory acceptance testing.

The antenna passed after undergoing two weeks of tracking, telemetry and command (TT&C) testing, which is a significant part of the factory acceptance testing. TT&C testing verifies the antenna’s functionality, ensuring that it can send and receive data to and from missions in space as well as track the satellites as they zoom along overhead. It is essential to test the antenna prior to site installation to avoid expensive, onsite modifications. Because of this, the factory testing occurred onsite at the vendor’s location in Atlanta, Georgia.

Now that the antenna has passed this critical milestone, it can be shipped to Fairbanks, Alaska, where it will be installed at and operated by the University of Alaska - Fairbanks’ Alaska Satellite Facility. There, it will undergo site acceptance testing and end-to-end testing, further verifying the antenna’s communications and tracking capabilities. Factory and site acceptance testing are significant milestones for the project, confirming that the antennas function properly. Working with their commercial partner, Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) and two commercial vendors, the NIKA team has made steady progress throughout the last few years on all four antennas.

While the Alaska antenna is now ready to ship to Fairbanks for site installation, KSAT, based in Norway, has simultaneously developed two international NIKA antennas, one for Punta Arenas, Chile, and the other for Svalbard, Norway. These antennas are both planned to enter factory testing in July 2020. The fourth NIKA antenna is currently being built for the Wallops Flight Facility location and will go through factory and site acceptance testing in the fall. After passing these critical steps, the antennas will soon be ready for operational use. These antennas will be located around the globe at ground stations in Fairbanks, Alaska; Wallops Island, Virginia; Punta Arenas, Chile; and Svalbard, Norway.

The four NIKA antennas were built to support a wide variety of missions from their designated locations. The antennas are tri-band-capable, supporting three different radio frequency bands: S-band, X-band, and Ka-band. Many legacy missions rely on S-band and X-band but as NASA, commercial partners, and other government agencies generate more and more data in space, the need for enhanced communications capabilities becomes paramount. While NASA has been using X-band and S-band for many years, Ka-band is a relatively new radio frequency band for the agency. This new capability will provide NASA’s emerging high-tech missions with improved data rates, enabling missions to send more data at once than ever before.

In particular, NIKA is being built to support missions like the NASA-Indian Space Research Organization Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission, which is set to launch in 2022. Using advanced radar imaging, NISAR will measure some of Earth’s most complex processes, including ecosystem disturbances, ice sheet collapses and hazards like earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and landslides. These measurements require exceptional data support from the NEN and introduced the need for Ka-band-capable antennas.

Throughout 2020, the project will go through numerous tests and reviews as it approaches operational readiness in March 2021. Once fully operational, current and future missions can utilize the tri-band capabilities of the antennas and send more data than ever before through the Near Earth Network. As the NIKA project passes its 2020 milestones, updates will be posted here on the ESC website. Follow along to learn more about this groundbreaking networking project.