A crane lowers a radome to cover the Kennedy Space Center's S-band antenna. A radome is a weatherproof, structural enclosure designed to protect an antenna or radar system and is constructed of material that interferes minimally with the electromagnetic signal transmitted or received. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
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New Tracking Stations to Provide Latest Technology for SLS, Orion

January 16, 2017

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Assembly of an advanced tracking antenna is nearing completion at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It is both an important step toward the center's role as a 21st century multi-user spaceport and a crucial milestone in preparing to launch the agency's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft.

The antenna is part of a new S-band ground tracking system, known as the Kennedy Uplink Station, located in the space center's industrial area. The new facility, along with a refurbished, identical counterpart north of Kennedy and other enhancements to existing Florida spaceport infrastructure, will form an integrated ground system providing crucial launch communications capabilities. In addition to SLS and Orion, the new ground system will support future civilian, military and commercial launches from Kennedy and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Chris Roberts, manager of the Launch Communications Stations Development Project at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, points out that the new ground system is a result of an innovative partnership leveraging NASA-developed and tested technologies.

"Our project grew out of a multi-agency Range Future State Definition Study and is supported by resources from several organizations," said Roberts. "Kennedy's Ground System Development and Operations (GSDO) program and the 45th Space Wing of the Air Force Space Command led the study, which was completed in 2012."

The project is jointly funded by GSDO and the Space Communications and Navigation Program (SCaN) at NASA Headquarters and has received material contributions from the U.S. Air Force.

"Installing the new antenna is something that our team has work toward for almost three years," said Roberts.

While the NASA ground stations are located at and near Kennedy to support launches from the Florida spaceport, they will be operated remotely from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia as part of the agency's Near Earth Network. To meet all SLS and Orion requirements, the project also will deliver upgraded electronics to two Air Force stations and a downrange tracking site in Bermuda.

According to Badri Younes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation, the agency is expanding its space communications capabilities.

"The installation of the Kennedy S-band tracking antenna will provide critical communication capabilities during the early launch stages of Orion and other future spacecraft," said Younes. "This work continues an agency effort to provide world-class communication and navigation capabilities for the next generation of human space exploration, as well as robotic scientific missions."

Those working on the Range Future State Definition Study realized advanced launch vehicles, such as the SLS, would require a ground system to transmit data at a high rate and there would be a need for an S-band uplink capability to communicate with astronauts. Sophisticated processing and control software also would be required to coordinate the various elements into a cohesive multi-station ground system.

The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will enable astronauts in the Orion spacecraft to explore distant destinations such as a near-Earth asteroid or the planet Mars.

"The architecture of the new ground system was developed through collaborative discussions among the Exploration and Space Communications Division here at Goddard, Kennedy's GSDO program and the Air Force," Roberts said. "The new SLS rocket will transmit multiple streams of telemetry to the ground at a much higher rate than the space shuttle and we also will need to be able to receive and transmit S-band data to the Orion spacecraft at the same time. This will be coordinated across five different NASA and Air Force ground stations throughout the launch and ascent phase."

The requirements of the ground system were so advanced, managers and engineers realized it would serve a broad range of needs well into the future. The resulting memorandum of understanding between NASA and the Air Force made the new system available for future robotic launches as well.

"This ground system will serve the needs of not only SLS and Orion, but all civil, military and commercial users," Roberts said. "It has a highly adaptable architecture based on standardized flight and ground interfaces that could support anything that is likely to come along."

The crucial elements of the new system will allow uninterrupted transmission of communications, between the rocket-spacecraft combination and controllers at Kennedy, the Cape, Goddard, the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The new network, designed for launch support, includes the new S-band antenna site at Kennedy, as well as an identical station at the Ponce De Leon Inlet Tracking Annex. The twin station is located in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, 35 miles north of Kennedy. The facility is being refurbished and modernized with an antenna system identical to the one at Kennedy, and will provide a crucial tracking capability following liftoff of the SLS.

Communications with the Kennedy Uplink Station will be obscured because of the highly reflective plume from the SLS solid rocket boosters. Beginning

at about one minute into the flight, the Ponce Inlet annex will pick up and continue tracking while the Kennedy site is blocked using the same capability as the Kennedy site. New advanced control and data handling software will ensure seamless station transition and continuous telemetry flow to launch and mission controllers.

Melbourne, Florida-based Harris Corp. is the prime integrator on the project and ViaSat, headquartered in Carlsbad, California, manufactured and assembled the antennas at the two stations.

The S-Band tracking antenna pedestal was positioned at the Ponce de Leon station on Nov. 2 with the antenna erected Nov. 5. At the Kennedy Uplink Station, the antenna pedestal was positioned on Nov. 9, with the antenna going up on Nov. 11. Once testing at each site is completed in December, radomes will be installed over the antennas.

A radome is a weatherproof, structural enclosure designed to protect an antenna or radar system and is constructed of material that interferes minimally with the electromagnetic signal transmitted or received.

"Our next goal is to complete a readiness review milestone in September of 2016," Roberts said. "We will be ready to support Exploration Mission 1."

Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, will be the first flight of the SLS and the second unpiloted flight test of the Orion spacecraft. Liftoff is projected for 2018 from Kennedy's Launch Complex 39B. During this flight, the spacecraft will travel thousands of miles beyond the moon over the course of about a three-week mission.

"We couldn't have done this without a great deal of cooperation across multiple government agencies and NASA centers," Roberts said. "After three years of discussions, engineering designs and technical reviews, our team is excited to see the actual hardware going up. We're looking forward to deliver these new capabilities to the Florida spaceport less than a year from now."

Last Updated: Dec. 16, 2015
Editor: Bob Granath