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“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Texas, home for NASA’s astronauts and Mission Control Center. Listen to the brightest minds of America’s space agency – astronauts, engineers, scientists and program leaders – discuss exciting topics in engineering, science and technology, sharing their personal stories and expertise on every aspect of human spaceflight. Learn more about how the work being done will help send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars in the Artemis program.
On Episode 225, Philip Baldwin lays out the infrastructure, operations, and future of near and deep space communication networks. This episode was recorded on November 30, 2021.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 225, “Space Communications.” I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. When it comes to space travel, one of the critical things you’ll need, no matter where you are or where you’re going, is communications. Things like sending commands, receiving data, and talking to astronauts are all enabled through a network of assets around the globe and in space. On this episode, we’re diving into how all of this works. It’s managed by NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program out of NASA’s Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Joining us from there is Philip Baldwin, the network operations manager. He discusses how this all works and how we’re preparing for the future of human spaceflight in low-Earth orbit and on the Moon, as part of NASA’s Artemis program. We have a lot to cover, so let’s get right into it; enjoy.
Host: Hey, Philip. Thanks for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast today.
Philip Baldwin: Thanks, Gary. I’m happy to be here. I understand I’m the first member of SCaN (Space Communications and Navigation) that’s joining you, so I’m excited to talk a little bit about Space Communications and Navigation.
Host: Excited, but you’ve got a big task ahead of you. We’re going to cover all of SCaN. [Laughter] At least, at least we’ll see as much that we can do in an hour. So, big task, but there’s a lot to it, so I think this is going to be a pretty informative episode. Before we get into that, Philip, I wanted to learn a little bit about you and what got you into SCaN, and then that, we’ll transition that into just what SCaN is. But first, tell us about your history and your expertise that led you to, to where you are today.
Philip Baldwin: That sounds good. I am the operations manager for SCaN. My formal title is network operations program executive, and you know, one of the interesting things is that my dad worked at NASA for about 39 years before he retired.
Host: Oh, cool.
Philip Baldwin: And so, I always had that NASA-ness, that NASA blood in me, where I love the exploration, the science, the technology, and growing up and seeing that really inspired me to, again, to be a NASA person, and have that thought of NASA and what it can achieve. And so, naturally, I ended up at NASA, and I’ve been a civil servant for about 11 years. I was a NASA contractor for about five years, and so, it’s been an enjoyable time, but I’m definitely enjoying the role I’m in now as a operations manager overseeing our communication networks that provide the excellent service to our missions.
Host: Wonderful, and we’re going to get into that. You’ve been with NASA for a long time if you add it up. If I’m doing math on the spot, which I probably shouldn’t, you’re about 16 years, and your dad was —
Philip Baldwin: I’m coming up on 16 years.
Host: Fantastic! And your dad was well over 30. Do you mind me asking, what did your dad do for NASA?
Philip Baldwin: He had several different jobs, mostly with —
Host: I’m sure, over 30-something years, right? Yeah.
Philip Baldwin: [Laughing] That’s right. So, primarily, he worked on the sounding rockets that Wallops [Flight Facility] launches out of their, their launch facility there. So, he worked on the payloads there and the testing.
Philip Baldwin: But then did software later in his years, and I remember him traveling around the globe, as well, launching sounding rockets in Marshall Islands and Alaska and other places. And so, definitely an interesting career he had.
Host: Interesting, yeah, and an adventure, it sounds like. Very fantastic. Were you always in space communications, or did you sort of progress to, to where you are today?
Philip Baldwin: No, I started off more in a navigation field, working with GPS (Global Positioning System) and formation flying. I started off working in a formation flying testbed, helping design missions that would use multiple spacecraft flying in formation together. I worked on something called a navigator receiver, which is currently flying in a mission called MMS, the Magneto[spheric] Multiscale Mission, looking at ionosphere reconnections, and actually broke a record — I believe it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the farthest away GPS fix, so this is getting GPS signals on the other side of the Earth. You know, we use it directly when we’re driving around in our cars, but satellites use the sidelobes is what it’s called, where you get signals that are spilling over the side of the Earth, and we’re able to use that to navigate our satellites. So, MMS is using that technology to navigate. So, we’re actually looking to use that for lunar support. So, I was definitely in navigation, not in communications. I made the switch over to communications; very related, very related fields, but definitely different things. And so I had to kind of change my thinking a little bit to focus more on comm[unications] and getting data back versus how to fly a satellite autonomously.
Host: That’s actually an interesting point, because we’re talking about SCaN, Space Communications and Navigation. You said they’re related but kind of not. So, what is that relationship between communications and navigation?
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, well, you know, timing is a key component to navigation. You know, you need to have a signal, you know, GPS uses timing, they use timecode to get your position, right? We look at pulses, and we time the pulses when it was received, and that’s how we get the time delays to determine your location. And so, one way to do navigation for satellites, right, is to get a comm link, a space comm link, to a satellite, and you get the time of flight, basically, the light time, and that’s how you do your, your navigation. So, the communications and network parcel we have, where we’re sending a signal to a satellite is important, because it can time-stamp that signal reception from the distance to the actual antenna on Earth, and they can use that for, for navigation. And so, though it’s not actually sending data, it’s just looking at when are those signals received, it’s still a vital connection there.
Host: Hmmm, OK, timing. Timing is a very important aspect it sounds like.
Philip Baldwin: Timing is the key, and the more precise your clocks are, the better your navigation is. And so, if your clock is inaccurate, you’re going to have the wrong time-stamp, and your, you could be very, very far off from where you think you are. And so, that’s a key component.
Host: So, one of the things I think we’ll get into here is having very robust systems, robust communication systems. If timing is that important, that means, that means that these things have to work, right? That means you can’t be off on that. Exactly.
Philip Baldwin: Exactly.
Host: Overall, I mean, it seems like you said you started in navigation, and then you sort of melded into the communications world. You’re exploring both, but I mean, it really does sound fascinating, and it sounds like something that you’ve dedicated a lot of your career to. What is it exactly that you love about communications, navigation, this aspect of, of space?
Philip Baldwin: Well, it’s interesting because when you think about things that are infrastructure, things that are foundational, sometimes it goes into the background and you don’t know it’s happening. And that’s the same with when we think about like our cellphone signals, and they’re in our cellphones. Right? We carry our cellphones around, and we basically use them without thinking about how they’re connected. It’s not maybe even a thought that when you’re traveling in your car, and you’re driving along, that it’s using multiple cellphone towers, and that signal’s coming through and it’s being routed through, and you’re getting the signal. But all you really care about, and frankly, what I care about, is just opening up my phone and having my GPS map, having all those apps I use, and listening to a podcast. I’m not really worried about, OK, is that comm link working? OK, when’s the next tower going to come in view? Is it going to come in view yet? Let me wait a little bit to see if the tower’s coming in view. And so, basically, it’s an invisible network. I’m plugging another podcast there. That really provides that infrastructure that you don’t really see, but it’s vital, and that was very exciting to me, when I think about that, how we are providing services that are across the board to all of NASA missions. Not just working on a single mission, we’re working on all of NASA missions. And so, when I see the Hubble images come back, when I will see, hopefully in the near future, the James Webb images come back, I can think to myself, wow, I had a part of that; I helped facilitate that coming down to the ground, for us to actually see the results of our hard work, of our billions of dollars of investment in space. I have a vital link to that. That makes me proud. I also see the importance of it, so that drove me to the communications area, and even thinking in the future, how can I further help the agency’s goals, right? That’s lunar. That’s obstacle. That’s quantum. And so, you know, that’s been my driver, that’s what makes me excited, and you know, I think it’s not often talked about, so we think about the astronauts landing on the Moon, we think about these cool launches, but maybe the invisible thing is the things that facilitate and make it successful.
Host: The things I’m pulling from this, Philip, is invisible, invisible meaning it’s happening all in the background, but from what it sounds like is you’re touching, really, all aspects of space. You’re touching, I mean, if something’s going into space, it has to rely on a communication network to navigate, to send data back and forth. You’re talking about having an imprint on, you know, Moon missions and telescopes and everything. I mean, you’re really touching, touching everything. So, it seems like you have, like, your own fingerprint in every mission, just because of what SCaN is. SCaN is something that is utilized by, I mean, truly everything that we do.
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, yep, and it’s a, it’s a nice position to be in to be able to support the missions and be there and to provide that vital link back. You know, one thing we always say sometimes is, kind of more of an internal thing, is, without us, it’s all space junk. You can’t do anything without that link. If you don’t have that link back, it’s just going to be flying in space with nothing to do [laughing].
Host: That is true. That is true. Cool. So, let’s get into it, then. I mean – and you were foreshadowing a lot of the future stuff, too, so this is going to be fantastic. But let’s get into the meat here. What is SCaN? If you had to tell someone walking down the street, who was interested in what is this entire thing, what is SCaN?
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, well, SCaN is a program, where we’re looking at Headquarters, and we oversee our communications networks for NASA. That’s the Near Space Network and the Deep Space Network. So, we support missions that are close to Earth, ones that are flying around in low-Earth orbit, like the ISS, the Hubble Space Telescope. We also have the Deep Space Network that supports missions like the Mars landing, Perseverance, and things that are going out like Voyager 1 and 2. It’s just a vital link in the communications connection to these missions that provide that data connecting the science, connecting space, connecting our exploration, down to Earth for the general public. And so, we provide that link, we provide that communications, we help the missions navigate and chart their ways to exploration. For me, that’s SCaN in a nutshell: it’s that vital link.
Host: Perfect. Yeah, if I was in an elevator, that would be the elevator pitch, right there, and it sounds like there’s two major networks that are a part of SCaN. One that you said, Near Space, and the other one was Deep Space. I’m assuming they are different because they use different assets. Is that a good, is that a good interpretation?
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, that’s correct. You know, we recently did a reorganization for our networks. The Deep Space Network was as is, but last year we changed a few things around. We were looking forward to the future, which I’ll talk about a little later probably, about commercialization. Previously we had the Near Earth Network, and we had the Space Network. The Near Earth Network had smaller apertures, or smaller antennas, on the ground that talked to our low-Earth orbit and polar orbiting satellites, and we had a Space Network that used the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite system. We combined those to be a more focused network, to focus on low-Earth orbit, and we have a Deep Space Network that remained the same, focusing on Deep Space assets and support. And so, our one really focuses on close, the Moon and closest to the Earth, and one’s looking farther out, the Moon and beyond.
Host: So, let’s first dive into Near Space Network. You were sort of alluding to it’s a mixture of some ground stations, antennas, and assets, and I believe, some satellites in orbit. I think, maybe, and TDRSS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System), in particular, I know is geosynchronous. So, what are those assets that make up the Near Space Network, and how are they talking to each other?
Philip Baldwin: So, first, the ground assets. We call them direct-to-Earth, so that’s just the ground assets we have, and those are a mixture of government-owned assets and antennas, and also, we heavily use commercial antennas as well, and so.
Host: Oh, OK.
Philip Baldwin: You know, right now, it’s about a mixture of 50-50, right, in our support. We use about 50% commercial and 50% government, and in the future, we’re going to be moving toward a near 100% use of commercial assets of direct-to-Earth ground stations. And so, we’re looking forward to that.
Host: Are they all U.S. commercial assets, or are they a mixture? Are we, are we, Is this like an international —
Philip Baldwin: It’s international —
Host: OK, yeah, I figured, right, because you’re talking about everything around the Earth. Yep.
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, we want to have full coverage, right? So, you have to make sure you can see all parts of the sky.
Philip Baldwin: And so, we have to have an international component to cover that full view of the space.
Host: And so, if I were to zoom in on a ground station, we’re talking about ground stations, right, so what makes up a ground station? How is it run? Who’s running the thing? You know, are they giant dishes? What do they even look like? Just focusing on a ground station.
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, in respect to Near Space Network, a ground station basically is the aperture or antenna, a large dish. The largest we have for the Near Space Network is about 18 meters. And so, not, not too large, but definitely a good size to support lunar distances, down to like a centimeter, or a five-meter dish to support some other polar missions. And so, what we have with the ground station is the dish, we have back-end electronics that do all the processing. So, once we receive the signal from a satellite, we have to decode it; we have to process it and ensure that we received it, make sure there’s no errors in the data. We have good timing systems, as I alluded to before. We have to have good timing to make sure that everything’s in sync, right? And so, that’s all a key component. We’re not fully automated everywhere, so we do have a crew at the sites, operators, who will view the signals and respond if there’s any issues and make sure that things are running OK.
Host: OK, and then when you’re sending them around, is it all through different radio waves or are there, are there ground umbilicals or anything that you’re sending, like wiring some of the signals to, any different locations, like mission control or anything?
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, so, you know, as we know the Internet is where it’s at now, right? We have connections all over, a lot of them are fiber connections, all over the globe, and we, we send that data, connect it back to the various locations. DSN is a little different. Near Space Network is more of a decentralized system, so we send it to mission operation centers, ground control, science operation centers, it pretty much goes to wherever the endpoint or the end customer’s at, basically, right? Because our mission, really, is to get the data to the scientists, to the owners of the satellite, so they can process that data and provide it, right? The Hubble, right, if it’s sending a picture down or an image down, we don’t want to hold onto it, we want to give it to scientists to process it as quick as possible, and they can use it, and the public can see it. That’s what we consider success, when it’s available, and it inspires, and it makes progress.
Host: So, you’re really sending a lot of the signals. Are you storing anything or saving or archiving any of the signals just at some of the ground stations or when you send them over to different respective sites or anything like that? Or is it really just routing, routing signals?
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, depending on the mission concept we have, you know, for most missions we do a storage for seven days up to 30 days, just in case, right? Just to provide the extra redundancy, in case something happens we have to replay it and send it back out, or there’s any kind of issues, we will store it for a little bit. We route it right away, so a lot of the stuff that we do is real time. So, as soon as we receive it we’re processing it and sending it as quick as we can, so near real time, I should say, but we do store it for a little bit just in case there’s any issues in the transmission back to the endpoint.
Host: Are the ground stations operated 24/7, so you’ve got rotating crews always monitoring something?
Philip Baldwin: Yes, yes. We are a 24/7 operation, we are always on console, there’s always someone who can answer the call if there’s an issue. You know, spacecraft emergencies happen just randomly, we don’t know when one’s going to happen. It happens all times of the day. They’re not that often, but when it happens, someone needs to be there to respond.
Host: Are some of these ground stations are in major areas, or are they in remote areas? And what I’m getting to here is I’m trying to think about what it’s like in the life of an operator at one of these ground stations, you know? I think they would be in very interesting places around the globe, so I’m curious on what their lives are like in some of these remote areas.
Philip Baldwin: Well, I’m glad you bring that up, because one of the things that we are very thankful is our operators. Not all of our locations, actually the majority of our locations, are in more of a remote area due to, we wanted to stay away from, again, signals, right? We don’t want the ground signals, cell phones, you know, TV, anything else to interfere with the signals we’re getting from space. And so, we try to keep them away from major cities and populated areas. A lot of the operators will have to live in areas that maybe aren’t the prime real estate [laughing], but they do have to travel out sometimes to get to the site. And one of the things we’re very thankful for is, during COVID, we didn’t shut down. While the world locked down, while the world had to retreat for safety, to be inside our houses, as we were, the operators, every day, since March 2020, went into work. Every single day. To protect not only life, we talked about the ISS, the International Space Station, but also the billions and billions of dollars in investment that the U.S. Government made in space. And we’re thankful for that sacrifice they made, because they made that sacrifice to continue to help NASA and to protect NASA’s assets. And so, that was a great sacrifice. We’re happy, and me, as a manager, sometimes I’m like, oh, man, that’s a shame: I’m working from home, and they have to go to work, and so I can only be grateful for the effort they put in to continue to support us and to go into work. This is, you know, ever since the very beginning of the pandemic. We haven’t lost a mission, we haven’t had any major impacts due to COVID, and we’re thankful. That’s in great part due to the operators.
Host: That’s fantastic, yeah. That’s exactly why I wanted to bring it up, I wanted to highlight exactly that, just because of the effort that it takes to, to keep the mission going. We’re talking about the ground stations and the folks that are staffing that, and we’re talking about some of the ground assets that are part of the Near Space Network. I know there are also satellites. One of them that we talk about a lot in human spaceflight, because it’s used on the International Space Station, are the TDRS satellites, tracking, data, and relay. So, what are those assets?
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, so we have, you know, several satellites, and we have a couple that are supporting, you know, basically provide a constant contact, an eye in the sky, to missions like ISS and Hubble and others, and they basically look just like the name says, tracking data relay. They track low-Earth orbit missions and relay the data back to the ground technicians or back to the mission op[eration]s centers or the mission control centers. And so we have them located around the, around the globe in locations that will provide a constant 100% coverage, and so as the ISS mission or a Hubble mission is orbiting the planet, they have a constant connection to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. Now, a difference from a ground station than from a satellite is that a ground station requires a satellite to be directly above it. That’s why we call it direct to Earth. It has to be a single connection straight from the satellite down to the ground. Now, if you’re orbiting the planet, and if you look at an image of the Earth, one thing you’ll see is that it’s mostly water, and so, we don’t have ground stations in the water. Actually, in the Apollo days we actually had ships, right, we actually had ships that had antennas on top of them, and they would provide those gaps in the ocean. We don’t have those anymore, so what that means is that a mission is heavily reliant on a pass, we call it, over a particular ground station, and that can be problematic. You can imagine for human spaceflight, to be in a vehicle, you’re in the ISS, and all of a sudden, you don’t have a connection, and you’re just there alone; you’re saying you’re trying to transmit data down and trying to talk to family members, you want to have a constant connection. You don’t want to have it breaking up every 30 minutes or every 90 minutes, and so that TDRS spacecraft, which was really focused, at one point, for the shuttle, to have that constant communications to the shuttle missions, provides that 24/7 communication link that ground stations could not provide based on geographics. And so, it’s just a vital asset. It’s been heavily used by the human spaceflight community, and it continues to be used with the visiting vehicles to ISS, and it’s used for nearly all government launches from the U.S. soil. And so, it’s a critical asset, and it’s been used for many, many years. Very successful and highly reliable.
Host: Yeah, we talk about it all the time when we cover our missions, for exactly that reason. Yeah, there are still gaps when they hand over from satellite to satellite, but they’re minimal, right? You’re not talking about when you said 90 minutes; yeah, they’re nowhere near that, so, yeah, and exactly what you’re saying. They’re critical to human spaceflight. Are there other space or ground assets that I’m missing that are part of the Near Space Network?
Philip Baldwin: No, that covers most of the Near Space Network. You know, we do have a couple of university partnerships, but we are looking at expanding our network to cover, one of the things we’re seeing in the science community is a growing of small sat[ellite]s, and so, when you first think about the Near Space Network and how it was created, right, it came from the old Apollo days, and we didn’t have, you know, the focus was on giant flagship missions. Large flagship missions, right? And so, now when you think about small sats, you’re like, OK, well, how are we going to support these small sats? And we have these antennas and ground stations designed for large missions like, you know, James Webb, like ISS, and, you know, so what we’re looking at now is how we can also include in our support these smaller satellites, because, you know, as we get constellations and, you know, we’ve heard about the constellations that are occurring in the commercial world, you know, NASA, too, will be doing constellations for science collection. And so, we’re looking at how we can increase the number of apertures we have on the ground, the number of antennas, and be able to provide that support to these small sats, which wasn’t a philosophy we had previously as we looked at just kind of one-off missions and a single spacecraft, but now we’re looking at maybe launching ten science spacecraft that have one mission goal. And so, it’s a different paradigm, and we’re adjusting to support that.
Host: Different paradigm because it sounds like technology’s improving, and we can fill in those gaps of communication with an efficient method. That’s kind of what it sounds like. It sounds like it’s not, you don’t need those giant satellites as much. You can rely on much smaller satellites to do the job, so it sounds very efficient in that manner.
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, and that’s what the science mission directorate has been looking at. There’s, you know, technology has improved to an extent where you can get a lot of science with smaller, lower investment, frankly, into these small sats that are able to provide great science. You can maybe launch more of them, and the risk is lower, right, so if you lose a small sat, you know, it’s still a loss, but your investment is much lower. And so, there’s an area where NASA can take a little bit more risk and maybe advance a little higher and get some more science, some great science, based on using these small sats. And so, yeah, it’s a different paradigm, but it’s one that’s been definitely spurred by technology.
Host: Fascinating. Since we’re still on the Near Space Network, I want to get to the Deep Space Network first, but one of the things that’s on my mind is we’re talking about signals, right, and you’re talking about signals being sent from ground stations, TDRS satellites; how we always see it, and when we’re covering human spaceflight and mission control, is different bands of communication. We see S-band communication, Ku-band, Ka-band sometimes. What are these different types of communication signals that we’re talking about?
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, so, what we’re talking about is a radio frequency, electromagnetic spectrum, and basically, just a wavelength of light, and so basically, a higher frequency, you know, we have the higher bands; in the lower frequencies, we have the lower bands. Like, S-bands at the lower end and Ka, when you get in the Ka-band, that’s the higher frequency. And so what these wavelengths of light allow you to do is to encode more data on a signal, and so when you have a lower frequency, you can’t encode as much data in the, in the signal. And so when you have these higher frequencies, your waves are basically going, are close together, you’re able to encode more data on the signal. And so, that’s why you’ll hear, let’s say for human spaceflight and ISS Ku-band or Ka-band, where we’re able to give a lot more data to the ISS using these higher frequencies. Now, for things like, you know, general housekeeping, we call it, for satellites, that’s when you’re just monitoring a satellite, checking if it’s OK — are the lights on? are the heaters on? — just general housekeeping, basically, you can use lower frequencies, because you don’t have that much data. You’re just checking if a switch is toggled; that doesn’t require a lot of data. But when you want to see 4K video [laughing], when you want to see that high-definition video, you would need the higher frequency. You need that higher bandwidth, which we get in the higher-frequency RF (radio frequency).
Host: You’re talking about the lower frequency, higher frequency. I think, from what I’ve seen, and maybe, maybe, you know, I’m misinterpreting this, the S-band is a lower frequency so you don’t have as much data, but you seem to maintain connections for longer periods of time, for whatever reason, but S-band always seems to go through. So that one, you know, in terms of what you’re talking about, are the lights on and everything like that, I could see a lot of that using S-band, because a lot of them are critical systems and we can monitor them. I think voice is on S-band, but Ku-band, you know, our video goes out from the space station every once in a while. It’s the higher-frequency stuff. Is that true? Is there more, is there any relation between the wavelength and how much coverage you’re getting?
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, so, one of the things that probably didn’t come across in my comment there was that, for S-band, when we say housekeeping, that really is the vital link. That’s the station control, right? That’s where you’re controlling vital systems. That’s the life support, that’s the, you know, the power systems, that’s the checking the solar panels, checking the control of the actual spacecraft, right? ISS is actually a spacecraft, right? And so, that’s where you get those connections, and that’s why S ones connected, you know, probably more than the Ka- or Ku-band, because that’s the key part where you need to actually need to control and operate the spacecraft. So, that’s really the part that’s used for the vital telemetry. Ka and Ku, the higher frequency ones, are the ones that are maybe more visible to the general public, the ones that are like the videos, the phone calls, the, you know, exciting experiments, the docking that happens. That’s the higher-frequency ones, but the ones that really are the day-to-day keeping the station running and safe for humans, that’s the S-band link. So, that one you will see connected far more often and having that more constant contact.
Host: OK, so, it’s more so about what the communication is doing, because the S-band is, is a signal for very vital systems. We’ll have that connection more often, because it’s just a critical thing that we need to monitor, so we need that more.
Philip Baldwin: Correct.
Host: OK, that makes more sense. Alright, so, we talked a lot about Near Space Network. Let’s get into Deep Space. Now, what are the assets that make up the Deep Space Network?
Philip Baldwin: So, we have three locations. We have Goldstone, we have Madrid in Spain, Canberra in Australia, and each of these locations have very large antennas. So, we talked about the Near Space Network having apertures the size, the largest about 18 meters; we’re looking at, for the Deep Space Network, the largest we have there is a 70-meter antenna. That’s about the size of an 11-story building — large, large antenna [laughing] — and we have also about four 34-meter antennas at each site. So, those are just very larger apertures, which we need, because when we talk about the things we connect to in space with these apertures, these antennas, we’re talking about things like Voyager, Voyager 1 and 2, which are way out there, billions of miles, and, and that signal we get back from them is so, so small that you need a large dish just to collect, just to collect the signal. It’s like a lightbulb in your refrigerator. Well, now it’s probably LEDs in your refrigerator, but back in the old days, when you had lightbulbs, it was about the power of a lightbulb coming back, and that’s just hardly anything. So faint. You need these large dishes, like a 70-meter, to be able to pick up on that signal. And so, you know, we use these mostly for things like Mars, that’s probably the most visible things we do, but we also support, you know, things like Juno, which is supporting looking at Jupiter, and other missions that had a great history of exploration throughout the years.
Host: And so, it’s really those three major sites on the ground with super-huge antennas that make up the Deep Space Network, and they’re a critical asset to filling those gaps that just the Near Space Network, they couldn’t pick on signals that faint, or does it have anything to do with distance either? Like picking up some of those cool photos, those high-resolution photos we get from some of the Mars rovers or anything like that?
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, distance plays a large part in it, right? That’s just, being so far away, the power that you actually get by the time it reaches Earth is much, much less, and so, you would need a large aperture to, you know, collect that signal and to process it. And, you know, it’s a critical difference, right, because one may think that, you know, you could just, a signal’s a signal as it is, right, there’s no change, but as you go farther and farther out, right, the power that it takes to transmit that energy, basically, you’re transmitting energy in the form of radio frequency, it gets smaller. And so, by the time it hits the dish, it’s a small, small signal.
Host: For, for human missions, just because this is the world that we’re in at Johnson [Space Center], when it comes to Artemis missions on the Moon, would we use more Near Space, more Deep Space, or some combination of the two?
Philip Baldwin: We’re going to use a combination. In the recent years we’ve had, used the Deep Space Network for mostly things like Mars, for deep space exploration. Years ago, in the Apollo days, the Deep Space Network was used for the lunar landings. So, now we’re going, after 50-something years, more than 50 years, we’re going to go back and use Deep Space Network again for Artemis. And we’re going to use a combination of the Deep Space Network but also some assets from the Near Space Network, and we’re looking at our loading and capacity, and one thing we constantly have to do at SCaN is to ensure that we have enough capacity to support all the missions, right? We can’t just focus on human spaceflight, just science, we have to make sure we have enough capacity to support everyone, so we’re adding additional apertures in the Near Space Network, 18 meters, more 18 meters, to be able to allow for additional capacity to support Artemis. As we’ve probably talked about, Artemis is going to have a lot of things going on at the Moon. There’s going to be vehicles, there’s going to be astronauts, there’s going to be landings, there’s going to be a Gateway, there’s going to be a lot of activity going on, and it needs to have a connection to a communication asset. And so, we’re looking at expanding out, but the Deep Space Network will be our initial primary support for our Artemis missions coming up.
Host: That’s such a, I mean, it’s just fascinating to think about. It really shows, because, really, I think it’s a signal of just where we are, using a Deep Space Network for human missions. I just think that’s just so cool, and that’s coming up here very soon. I wanted to transition here to talking about, just now that we’ve really explored in depth what makes up SCaN are the Near Space Network and the Deep Space Network, what are these things; I want to get into more on how it works, how this network is run and managed, because I think, you know, for us at Johnson, especially the Near Space Network with TDRS and everything, one of the things that I’m aware of is, and you’ve made abundantly clear, Philip, is, is that we’re not the only player in town when it comes to using these assets. This is very much a shared asset. There are a lot of players in low-Earth orbit that are fighting for time, you know, and they want to send their signals through the Near Space Network. So, how is this managed? With all of the different missions going on, how do you manage the data that’s flowing among all the assets? Because it seems to be quite a lot.
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, so we, you know, we have a great scheduling team that looks at all the requests that come in to ensure that everybody is meeting mission objectives. You know, our primary thing is to focus on mission objectives. So, early on we sign an agreement with the missions to say, OK, this is how much data we’re able to provide you; will this meet your mission objective? And we ensure we can cover that, looking at how many assets we have, how much capacity we have in our networks and loading, and we achieve that through our day-to-day scheduling. And so, when we get our schedules, you know, weeks in advance, we schedule up the missions, but occasionally missions ask for more data, which is fine, and we’ll fill the capacity with what we’re able to provide for them to be able to give them more science return. But it is a juggling act, because we only have a finite amount of ground assets and space assets, so we have to find a nice balance between what we’re able to provide. In looking at the Artemis, we looked at it and said, OK, wow, we’re going to be behind. We don’t have enough capable systems to support it, so we’re actually looking at increasing a number of assets to be able to support it. And, you know, just to kind of go off on a little tangent here, back to Artemis, you know, when we looked at even the far-side coverage, not every part of the Moon sees the ground, so how are we going to cover all of the missions that are going to be exploring the far side of the Moon? So, we’re also now looking at a lunar relay to be able to relay data, just like TDRS relays data around the globe, we’re looking at a lunar relay to relay data back from the far side of the Moon, back down to Earth. And so, we constantly have to look at the coverage, look at the gaps. Where do we need more, and, you know, we can’t do this in a, we have to plan ahead, because it takes time to build up capacity. So, we do projections out ten years, and we’re even doing like a projection for TDRS out to 2030 right now to try to see if there’s gaps and what we’re going to do, and so we really have to plan ahead to be sure that, before the mission launches, that we can support it. Our scheduling team does a great job of making sure everybody’s needs are met.
Host: Yeah, OK, so that’s how you’re managing it, and you’re anticipating, just, you’re talking about what you’re planning for, it sounds like, Philip, is a significant increase in utilization of SCaN and the various networks. It sounds like Deep Space is one of the things, because you’re trying to gear up for more presence on and around the Moon. Even Near Space, you were talking about some of the small sats, as well. So, just in your career with SCaN, have you seen utilization of some of the assets change? Go up, go down, stay the same? And is that factoring into some of the considerations that you’re thinking about when planning assets?
Philip Baldwin: Yes, we’ve previously talked about, you know, one of the things that we’re seeing increasing is the use of higher frequencies, Ka-band, and so, we have a couple of missions coming on that are going to be, actually, three missions that are in the near term, that will be coming on. So, it’s going to be Ka-band polar orbiting missions. One of the missions is going to be 3.5 gigabits per second. That’s the most data rate, the highest data rate, we’ve done at NASA. And so, that’s going to be a significant increase in data. So, we’re building a Ka-band network basically to increase that capacity. That’s going to be completed next year, and the mission launches a year after that. And so, I’ve seen an increase, and that was a jump, right, so we went from our fastest, our highest data rate, from 300 megabits per second for Ka-band, to 3.5 gigabits, and so a large leap in what we’re able to provide, but that also means we need more systems that can provide that support. So, yeah, I’ve definitely seen an increase, and it’s still coming [laughing]. There’s more missions on the way that are going to be increasing their need.
Host: So, you have all these different players that want to have this asset. You’re planning ahead for that. You have to have some, in terms of the management, right, back to the management conversation, you have to have some sort of standard for all of these different, all of these different players in space that want to use these assets, so do you have data standards that say, OK, you know, we’ll provide a signal for you, but here’s what we require from you?
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, you know, we have different data standards that we use. One of them, a few of them that we use to make sure everything is interoperable, right? We work with the international communities, government organizations, to ensure that the type of signals that are used are ones that work with our systems. You know, occasionally, we will use other agencies’ systems, as well. We have cross-support agreements, they’re called, with the European Space Agency. I think we just signed one with JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), the Japanese space agency, and sometimes we’ll want to use their assets. When we look out and say, OK, well, we have a conflict, we don’t have enough capacity to support this mission, we’ll ask ESA, hey, can we borrow one of your antennas for a number of hours? And so, it’s important that they have the same standards we have, because if we can’t talk the same language then it’s not going to work. And so we do have a lot of these standards built into our systems, and we ensure that the missions, when they’re built and created, have the same data standards that allow for interoperable communications. That’s a big component of what we’re trying to do at SCaN is to push for interoperability. As more folks are looking toward commercialization of space, one of the things that’s a concern is whether or not we’ll all be able to talk together. You imagine again, going back to a cellphone: back years ago, when you went to a different country, you had to either buy a SIM card or buy a phone when you were at that country, because your phone just did not work. But now, you pretty much just go to another country, and you get the international plan, and you’re able to connect. That’s because your phone is interoperable with multiple networks, and the cellphone industry has adopted that model where phones can interoperate between multiple networks. That’s the same thing we want here on Earth and out in space, that even the commercial providers can interoperate with each other, and that’s the thing that we are promoting and encouraging industry to take on, and we ourselves are making sure that our systems are open, that we are able to, we publish what our data standards are so others can interoperate with us, and we’re looking at industry to follow that same precedent so we can all be great stewards of this great community we have in space.
Host: So, let’s go, let’s go into commercialization then, because it seems like this is a very important topic for what is going to be the future of space communication. You talked about transitioning. We’re talking about a lot of assets that are NASA-owned and operated and that sort of thing, but you sort of foreshadow from the beginning of this conversation that we are aiming to go 100% commercial. So, talk about the logic behind that and just the process and even what that’s going to look like in terms of how space communications will be operated in the future?
Philip Baldwin: Well, you know, looking at commercialization and what we’re trying to do for the future, one of the things we’ve seen in the industry over the last, I’d say, you know, ten, maybe 15 years, is that there’s a lot more commercial systems that are available, whereas we now can be one of many. We’ve heard that term before when we talked about the Commercial Crew, but the reality is, it’s true. We can leverage what exists in a commercial market. It wasn’t the case years ago, but now it is. And so, you know, we’ve been asked, well, OK, why are we building when we could buy? And it makes sense. We can work on the next thing. We can work on advancing technology, but if there’s a service that exists, it doesn’t hurt us just to buy that service. And so, we’re looking at commercializing our, first our direct to Earth, our ground stations, simply because we’ve already, for about the last 20 years, we’ve already had a mixture of commercial plus government. So, for us to just, you know, pretty much increase the commercial portion of that, that’s a fairly simple route to take. And so, and the number of providers that exist in the commercial world has grown significantly, so we’re able to leverage that investment that the commercial world has done and just buy services. And so, we’ll be looking to do that in the next couple of years here as we migrate on to a more commercial model. For TDRS, you know, a little more difficult. When we talk about the relay satellites that exist in the commercial world, mostly designed for terrestrial use, right, and originally designed for, a lot of them, planes. When you go on your plane, now it’s pretty straightforward to get internet. Boats, cruises, remote areas; a lot of these commercial assets are designed for that. Not so much for spacecraft that is orbiting the Earth very fast. And so —
Philip Baldwin: What we’re looking at, we have a project called the Communications Services Project, that’s looking at how to use these existing commercial assets and use them to support future NASA missions, and so that’s a challenge, right, we need to make sure that they can work with our systems. Because when looking at TDRS, we don’t currently have plans to replenish our TDRS fleet. So, as the TDRS spacecraft age they’ll be decommissioned. And so we’re looking at a fly-out of TDRS roughly in the 2035, mid-2030s roughly, where we won’t have enough to support all of our NASA objectives. And so, what that means is that we need to have another option, and right now we’re looking at a commercial option to replace TDRS in the future, and so that’s going to be a paradigm shift. We’ve all loved TDRS, we’ve loved what it’s done for the many, many years supporting shuttle and now ISS, but we believe the commercial industry can get to a place where it can support NASA as well. And so, we’re looking at that now, and we’ll be working with industry to assure that is the possibility.
Host: It seems to be a theme, definitely, across much of NASA and spaceflight, is this idea of commercialization. It’s shared with a lot of our efforts in low-Earth orbit with the assets there, even we’re talking space stations, right? The next space stations.
Philip Baldwin: Yep.
Host: The plans right now are for those to be commercial. Transportation? Already commercial. Cargo? Already commercial. So, it seems to be a model, it seems to be a model that works and that we’ll be building on the future — for the Moon it’s going to be a mix of international and commercial partnerships, and it seems to be the way of the future. So, you know, let’s all hop on board for all aspects of it. But you mentioned some of the challenges, right, when it comes to commercialization, especially in SCaN. And so, I think, you know, going forward and planning for that, seems like you’ve got a decent timeline here to plan for that. What are the major considerations from a NASA perspective on what are the things that we are going to care about as we transition to a commercial model? For example, maintaining standards that can be utilized with all different commercial aspects and all different providers to make sure that we can meet our objectives.
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, I mean, when you look at the commercial world right now, not so much in the, like I mentioned before the cellphone industry, but more of in the space industry of the satellites, the mega-constellations that have been launched recently. Those are not interoperable; you can’t use one or the other, right, you can either/or. So we’re looking at ways to mitigate the risk of something we call vendor lock-in: when you launch a satellite, and it can only communicate to one type of commercial asset. And then, you’re stuck to it. You’re basically locked in. That’s a concern. You know, not only with the price increases that could happen if there was a major failure in that commercial company. We want to make sure we’re able to communicate and interoperate with all of the assets that are available to us, so we’re looking at ways to mitigate that risk. Looking at pushing, as I mentioned before, data standards that are open, pushing interoperability. And even on the back end on our side, we’re working with missions in designing a wideband receiver, what we call a multilingual receiver, because we want to talk many languages. We want to talk to Company X, Company Y, we don’t want to just be able to talk to one particular commercial company, we want to be able to talk to all of the commercial companies, and so we’re working on ways to allow for that and to build our systems at the very least to be able to have the flexibility to talk to different signals and data standards. And so, that’s how we’re trying to mitigate that risk but also working with industry to show the importance of interoperable communications. And so, we’re working hard on that, and we’re having engagements as we speak with industry on this, and we think we’ll be successful.
Host: Yeah, it is a challenge, but it does sound very exciting, and I love your positivity, Philip, for sure.
Philip Baldwin: [Laughing] Thanks.
Host: I want to end with this, because one of the things you mentioned was, especially when you were talking about commercialization, is when it comes to the operations, that’s something easily that it makes sense to transition to a commercial model, because there are these assets that exist. So we just have to maintain that interoperability, and we can move forward to that sort of model. But you still talked about maintaining the ability and the efforts to push technology, and it sounds like that’s one of those things at SCaN that’s pretty important is making sure that you’re always a step ahead and thinking about the latest and greatest technologies. If you can, end with this: give us a preview of some of the exciting technologies in the Space Communication and Navigation network that may be coming to us in the near future.
Philip Baldwin: Yep, sounds great. You know, when people said that we’re commercializing, or they hear of us commercializing, they really get nervous, thinking that we’re shutting down shop. [Laughing] And that’s not the case. You know, our model is changing, our paradigm’s changing, but we’re going to look toward the future. We’re going to look at things that are going to advance technology and provide better data, better connectivity, higher speeds. You know, at some point, we’re going to want 8K video from the Moon or from Mars, and so we’ll need things like optical. When we talk about the RF and Ka-band, yeah, it’s great, but optical takes you to a whole new level of connectivity. That’s where you can have that high-definition video, so we’re looking at optical communications. We have a lunar, sorry, a Laser Communications Relay Demonstration that’s going to launch in a few days here. That’s going to be one of our first, actually, our first optical relay satellite that we’ll launch and be able to test with ISS in the future. And so that will prove out that concept, and we’ll go into optical operations. We’re going to do an optical experiment on the Orion for Artemis II, that’s currently planned. And so we are looking toward the future and pushing that technology. But piggybacking on the optical, there’s also even more advanced things we can do, such as quantum communications, have that entanglement: we’re able to entangle photons as we have that optical communication, we’re going to use that for the quantum entanglement, and so now we’re looking at how to even do quantum communications in the future, which will be a game-changer for when we look at Mars exploration and human exploration of Mars. And so, we’re not going to stay back in the past. We’re going to look toward the future, and we have a lot of groundbreaking things that I think are going to change the paradigm for what we have today, and that’s where we want to be. As NASA, that’s where we want to be. We want to be on the forefront of technology, pushing the bounds. All the stuff that we do will benefit, will benefit the U.S. public. And so, we’re really looking forward to being able to provide that, and not only the U.S. public, the globe, as we work on GPS, navigating satellites with GPS, using GPS on the Moon or GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System), using multiple assets that can help us navigate. Using things like DTN, that is the Delay or Disruption Tolerant Networking; that’s another technology that is going to allow us to do something like the internet is on the ground — why can’t we have that in space? Again, why do I have to worry about what our connection is? Let’s just have an internet-like system in space. That’s another futuristic technology that we want to have, where a astronaut can just send something, doesn’t have to worry about where it’s going to go; a mission can just communicate to a node, and it just gets back to the endpoint. And so, we are really looking heavily at what we can do to make this all even more invisible [laughing] in the background but provide great service and coverage. We also want to make sure that our future engineers, those coming in with these great ideas, these younger generations, also is excited. And so, we also have an internship program that we do, the SCaN Internship Program, that allows for us to train these future engineers, so they can think outside the box. And some of them have thought about things that were way outside the box, and we’re, like, oh, my goodness, this is great, let’s use this, and so that’s also been a benefit, to make sure that our future generation is excited and can carry on the NASA purpose and goals. And so, a lot of great things are happening: we’re pushing the bounds of technology, we’re going to commercialize, and we’ll continue to provide that great support to all of NASA’s missions and even the future Artemis missions that will be happening soon.
Host: Philip, that was, what a way to end, because I feel like, what I want to do is to steal another hour of your time and dive deep into all of those different crazy ideas. Quantum and the Delay/Disruption Tolerant: I mean, you’re talking some awesome technologies, and so I feel like we need to do a follow up one just to dive even deeper. But honestly, Philip, this was a fascinating conversation on SCaN and just everything about it, how it’s run today and just what we’re thinking about for the future, and it seems like a very exciting world. I can tell your passion is, you’re very passionate about this world, and I can see why, because it seems like it is very, very exciting. So, Phillip Baldwin, I very much appreciate your time today to talk about SCaN, and I really hope that we can have you on in the future, because those teasers at the end are just too much for me to handle right now. So, but I do appreciate your time. Thanks for coming on.
Philip Baldwin: Yeah, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it, and it was a good conversation.
Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. I really believe we just skimmed the surface of SCaN, but I definitely learned a lot today, and I hope you did, too. Check out NASA.gov for the latest, and from there, you can find a link to the Space Communication and Navigation, or just search NASA SCaN. We’re on NASA.gov/podcasts, one of many NASA podcasts that we have across the agency. If you want to check out some of our episodes, go there, and you can listen to us in no particular order. You can also talk to us on social media: we’re on the Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just use the hashtag #AskNASA on your favorite platform to submit an idea or ask a question for us, and just make sure to mention it is for us at Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on November 30th, 2021. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Belinda Pulido, and Al Feinberg. And, of course, thanks again to Philip Baldwin for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of our podcast. We’ll be taking a short break for the holidays, but don’t worry, we’ll have all new content coming in 2022. See you then!