Beth Keer, TBIRD Project Manager Credit: NASA
laser communication, TEMPO, Profile 

Beth Keer: Creating Big Data Rates in a Small Package

By Katherine Schauer

May 19, 2022

Beth Keer is leading the way for NASA’s TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) payload. Launching on May 25, 2022, TBIRD will showcase the impactful data benefits of optical, or laser, communications. Laser communications offers missions higher data rates, packing more data into each transmission.

Historically, NASA has relied on radio frequency to communicate with spacecraft. Laser communications uses infrared light rather than radio waves to transmit and receive data at significantly higher rates.

At Goddard, Keer is project manager for the TBIRD payload. TBIRD is a tissue-box-sized payload on a small satellite called the Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3. For TBIRD, Keer removed barriers and overcame challenges so that the technical team could develop the payload. She facilitated communication between organizations and brought in relevant expertise. She ensured the contracts were organized and funded, and that the required people and facilities were available.

“It’s a balance of taking care of the people verses making progress,” said Keer. “We’re fortunate at NASA that team members typically are passionate about the missions, so I’ve found it's important to remind teams to get rest in order to protect themselves as well as the hardware.”

The team behind this revolutionary laser communications system spans NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California; and NASA partners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory and Terran Orbital Corporation.

"Being part of a high-functioning team that works hard and never quits is a huge honor," said Keer. "NASA missions that are this exciting attract the brightest people. It’s awesome to be part of enabling the future."

TBIRD leverages commercial off-the-shelf 100 gigabit per second (Gbps) modems that were originally created for communicating on Earth. The team "upscreened" these parts for space, modifying the hardware for the extreme environment of space. Although only the size of a tissue box, TBIRD will have significant impact on future applications of laser communications.

With two 100 Gbps modems, TBIRD will be able to send down terabytes of data each day to its ground station in Table Mountain, California. The system will demonstrate high-rate laser communications is a viable option for future science missions. With high data rates, science missions can employ advanced scientific instruments that capture high-resolution images and videos to send back to Earth for investigation and discovery.

TBIRD is one of many laser communications missions at NASA. NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program office is infusing optical systems into mission architectures to work alongside radio frequency, increasing communications capabilities.

Keer enjoyed working with the TBIRD team and being a part of an impactful and revolutionary mission.

In fact, Keer has been a part of many NASA projects. She began her career at NASA over 28 years ago, working on everything from flight projects, policy development, review boards, astrophysics, technology development, new business, mission operations, and more.

Prior to TBIRD, Keer was a program manager in the Satellite Servicing Projects Division, now known as Exploration & In-space Services division. There, she was in charge of technology development, working on missions that use innovative technologies to service satellites in space.

In her free time, Keer enjoys spending time with family, including her three adult daughters and nieces and nephews. Together, they vacation near the ocean or the mountains for a winter getaway.

After launch, Keer will work TBIRD operations, coordinating the spacecraft’s downlinks to Earth and refining optical communications technologies.