A student learns about the history of space communications using the exhibit’s interactive touchscreen. Credit: NASA/Amber Jacobson
ESC, visitor center, ACCESS, NSN 

Goddard Visitor Center Enters ’Decade of Light’ With New Space Communications and Navigation Exhibit

By Katherine Schauer

November 7, 2018

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 Though accurate at the time of publication, it is no longer being updated and may contain broken links or outdated information.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’s Goddard Space Flight Center Visitor Center has a brand new, interactive display that shares with visitors fun activities for learning about how NASA missions communicate with Earth. This permanent exhibit, located in Greenbelt, Maryland, hosts four educational panels with visually dynamic screens highlighting space communications technology, including a sneak peek at next-generation technologies.

NASA’s communications networks provide coverage for more than 100 missions, some of which orbit Earth, while others venture out into deep space. These networks, the Near Earth Network, the Space Network and the Deep Space Network, transmit vital science data to users on Earth, advancing NASA’s knowledge about the planet and universe. These networks provide the necessary tracking and transmission of commands for each spacecraft. Additionally, the Space Network is responsible for the continuous communication required for NASA’s human spaceflight missions, such as the International Space Station. Under the direction of NASA’s Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) program, Goddard manages both the Near Earth Network and the Space Network.

The exhibit’s hands-on modules inform and excite students about the achievements and challenges of NASA’s space communications technologies. Working with the Goddard Visitor Center, the Goddard team curated an informative and entertaining exhibit for students interested in NASA’s space communications and many related science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts.

Using the Next Generation Science Standards, the team incorporated common learning concepts for middle school students into the exhibit to reinforce what students are exploring in the classroom every day on topics such as information technology and real-world applications of science. Middle school students comprise the largest portion of Visitor Center attendees, who have opportunities to pursue an interest in STEM through afterschool activities and camps.

“The new SCaN exhibit is a unique opportunity for students to learn about how NASA brings data down from space. Space communications involves many fundamental STEM concepts, such as energy and the electromagnetic spectrum,” said Barbara Adde, SCaN’s policy and strategic communications director. “This display and the associated activities will support what students are learning in the classroom and provide them with real-world examples to help build their knowledge.”

The four-sided exhibit showcases SCaN’s “Decade of Light” theme, focusing on the future of optical communications. Throughout the last 50 years, NASA has primarily used radio frequency to communicate data; however, in the next decade, NASA will utilize optical communications, using lasers to communicate data to and from Earth.

The exhibit will inform visitors about different electromagnetic waves such as infrared and radio waves, how data is encoded into beams of light to communicate, the benefit of optical communications versus radio, and the challenges NASA overcomes with communications. The panels relate the information back to familiar technologies, such as cell phone communications.

The new exhibit offers a variety of interactive media spanning from images, audio recordings and videos. One panel hosts a large touchscreen, which uses video and animation to enable a deeper dive into NASA’s current communications capabilities, missions supported by the Near Earth Network, Space Network and Deep Space Network, and the vivid history of space communications.

To engage with younger visitors, a kids’ zone features fun and interactive learning modules, including a Build your Own Communications Satellite game, a mission development game and space-related games from the Space Operations Learning Center. Using advanced software, the touchscreen panel highlights STEM content in an interactive, engaging way.

To support further exploration of topics covered in the exhibit, the Exploration and Space Communications division’s Communications and STEM Engagement team created hands-on activities for campers and students at the Goddard Visitor Center. These games include “Telepong” to teach students about data transmission; a laser circuit demonstration, which uses circuit boards to explain optical communications; and a modified telephone game to display the challenges of communicating in difficult environments such as space.

Along with presenting the STEM engagement activities at NASA events, the team travels to schools and museums across the D.C., Virginia and Maryland area to showcase these games to teachers who could implement them in their curriculum.

The Goddard Visitor Center sees over 40,000 visitors per year on average, and half of those visitors are typically students above 10 years old. SCaN’s partnership with the Goddard Visitor Center will continue throughout the coming years; as new technologies and missions are created, the exhibit and educational activities will be updated to reflect current information.