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NASA’s Near Space Network Enables PACE Climate Mission to ‘Phone Home’

The PACE spacecraft sending data down over radio frequency links to an antenna on Earth. The science images shown are real photos from the PACE mission.
An artistic rendering of the PACE spacecraft sending data down over radio frequency links to a Near Space Network antenna. The science images shown are real photos from the PACE mission.
Credits: NASA/Kasey Dillahay

The PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) mission has delivered its first operational data back to researchers, a feat made possible in part by innovative, data-storing technology from NASA’s Near Space Network, which introduced two key enhancements for PACE and other upcoming science missions.

As a satellite orbits in space, its systems generate critical data about the spacecraft’s health, location, battery life, and more. All of this occurs while the mission’s science instruments capture images and data supporting the satellite’s overall objective.

Animation of NASA's PACE mission transmitting data to Earth through NASA's Near Space Network.
NASA/Kasey Dillahay

This data is then encoded and sent back to Earth via radio waves through NASA’s Near Space Network and Deep Space Network — but not without challenges.

One challenge is extreme distances, where disruptions or delays are common. Satellite disruptions are similar to what internet users experience on Earth with buffering or faulty links. If a disruption occurs, Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking, or DTN, can safely store and forward the data once a path opens.

NASA’s Near Space Network integrated DTN into four new antennas and the PACE spacecraft to showcase the benefit this technology can have for science missions. The network, which supports communications for space-based mission within 1.2 million miles of Earth, is constantly enhancing its capabilities to support science and exploration missions.

DTN is the future of space communications, providing robust protection of data that could be lost due to a disruption.”

Kevin Coggins

Kevin Coggins

Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA SCaN

“DTN is the future of space communications, providing robust protection of data that could be lost due to a disruption,” said Kevin Coggins, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program. “PACE is the first operational science mission to leverage DTN, and we are using it to transmit data to mission operators monitoring the batteries, orbit, and more. This information is critical to mission operations.”

PACE, a satellite located about 250 miles above Earth, is collecting data to help researchers better understand how the ocean and atmosphere exchange carbon dioxide, measure atmospheric variables associated with air quality and climate, and monitor ocean health by studying phytoplankton — tiny plants and algae.

The top right corner of the image shows a nearly quarter-circle shaped piece of land, which is a brown-orange color. There are speckles of clouds covering the top right-most corner of the land. The rest of the image is taken up by ocean, showing the coast of the ocean where it meets the land. The ocean is split up into three segments, each colored differently, with the middle section the largest. The section to the left shows the ocean in true color. There are white wispy clouds covering parts of the ocean from top to bottom at the left-most side. The ocean itself is primarily a dark blue color, though at the top of the section, near the coastline, swirls of light blue, teal, and green begin to form – part of a phytoplankton bloom. The middle section of the image is shown in pink and green. The swirls of green are closer to the coastline, but spread outwards into the ocean, mixing in with the pink. The swirls of pink are farther away from the coast. The right section of the image is shown in several colors of the rainbow. Reds, yellows, and greens are closer to the shore while dark blues and purples are further out in the ocean.
NASA’s PACE satellite’s Ocean Color Instrument (OCI) detects light across a hyperspectral range, which gives scientists new information to differentiate communities of phytoplankton – a unique ability of NASA’s newest Earth-observing satellite. This first image released from OCI identifies two different communities of these microscopic marine organisms in the ocean off the coast of South Africa on Feb. 28, 2024. The central panel of this image shows Synechococcus in pink and picoeukaryotes in green. The left panel of this image shows a natural color view of the ocean, and the right panel displays the concentration of chlorophyll-a, a photosynthetic pigment used to identify the presence of phytoplankton.

While PACE is the first operational science user of DTN, demonstrations of the technology have been done previously on the International Space Station.

In addition to DTN, the Near Space Network worked with commercial partner, Kongsberg Satellite Services in Norway to integrate four new antennas into the network to support PACE.

These new antennas, in Fairbanks, Alaska; Wallops Island, Virginia; Punta Arenas, Chile; and Svalbard, Norway, allow missions to downlink terabytes of science data at once. Just as scientists and engineers constantly improve their instrument capabilities, NASA also advances its communications systems to enable missions near Earth and in deep space.

As PACE orbits Earth, it will downlink its science data 12 to 15 times a day to three of the network’s new antennas. Overall, the mission will send down 3.5 terabytes of science data each day.

NASA and KSAT Near Space Network Initiative for Ka-band Advancement antennas. This image shows for antennas across the globe in a variety of environments. The first is in Alaska, the second is in Chile, the third is in Norway, and the fourth is in Virginia.
The Near Space Network’s new antennas in Alaska, Chile, Norway, and Virginia. These were developed in partnership with KSAT.

Network capability techniques like DTN and the four new antennas are the latest enhancements to the Near Space Network’s catalog of services to support science missions, human spaceflight, and technology experiments.

 “NASA’s Near Space Network now has unprecedented flexibility to get scientists and operations managers more of the precious information they need to ensure their mission’s success,” said Coggins.

A picture of the Earth with multiple Earth-observing spacecraft around it. On the surface are four images of Near Space Network antennas while text on screen reads: Near Space Network - bringing home Earth science data.
An artistic rendering of multiple Earth-observing satellites around the globe using NASA’s Near Space Network to send back critical data.
NASA/Kasey Dillahay

In addition to these new capabilities, the network is also increasing the number of commercial antennas within its portfolio. In 2023, NASA issued the Near Space Network Services request for proposal to seek commercial providers for integration into the network’s expanding portfolio. With an increasing capacity, the network can support additional science missions and downlink opportunities.

The Near Space Network is funded by NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program office at NASA Headquarters in Washington and operated out of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

By Katherine Schauer
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

About the Author

Katherine Schauer

Katherine Schauer

Katherine Schauer is a writer for the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program office and covers emerging technologies, commercialization efforts, exploration activities, and more.