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10 Ways the 2010s Pushed Communication and Navigation into the Future!

10 Ways the 2010s Pushed Communication and Navigation into the Future!

We transmit vast amounts of data from space, letting all of our satellites “phone home.” Imagery from far off regions of our solar system, beautiful visions of other galaxies and insights into planet Earth flow through our communications networks. 

Our Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program is dedicated to making sure we precisely track, command and control our spacecraft. All the while, they develop bold new technologies and capabilities for Artemis – our sustainable lunar exploration program that will place the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024. 

As we prepare to say goodbye to the 2010s, let’s take a look at 10 of the biggest milestones in space communications and navigation of the past decade. 

1. Continuous global communications? TDRS has you covered.

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From 2013 to 2017, we launched three Tracking and Data Relay Satellites, or TDRS for short. These new satellites replenished a fleet that has been around since the early 1980s, allowing us to provide continuous global communications coverage into the next decade. Missions like the International Space Station depend on TDRS for 24/7 coverage, allowing our astronauts to call home day or night.

2. Binge watching on the Moon? Laser communications will make it possible.

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Imagine living at the Moon. With the Artemis program, we’re making it happen! However, we can’t live there without decent internet, right? In 2013, we conducted the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD). This was the first high-speed laser communications demonstration from the Moon, transmitting data at a whopping 622 megabits per second, which is comparable to many high-speed fiber-optic connections enjoyed at home on Earth! Our LLCD sent back high-definition video with no buffering. 

3. Record Breaking GPS navigation, at your service.

Space communications is just one piece of the SCaN puzzle. We do navigation too! We even break records for it. In 2016, our Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission broke the world record for highest altitude GPS fix at 43,500 miles above Earth. In 2017, they broke it again at 93,200 miles. Earlier this year, they broke it a third time at 116,200 miles from Earth — about halfway to the Moon!

Thanks to MMS, our navigation engineers believe that GPS and similar navigation constellations could play a significant role in the navigation architecture of our planned Gateway spaceship in lunar orbit!

4. Crashing planes as part of the game – of research!  

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Then there was that one summer we crashed three planes in the name of research! In 2015, our Search and Rescue office tested crash scenarios at Langley Research Center’s Landing and Impact Research Facility to improve the reliability of emergency beacons installed in planes. After the study, we made recommendations on how pilots should install these life-saving beacons, increasing their chances of survival in the event of a crash. The Federal Aviation Administration adopted these recommendations this year!

5. The Deep Space Atomic Clock takes flight. 

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Missions venturing into deep space want the autonomy to make decisions without waiting for a commands from Earth. That’s why we launched the Deep Space Atomic Clock this past year. This itty-bitty technology demonstration is a small, ultra-stable timekeeping device that could enable autonomous navigation!

6. 50 never looked so good – for our Deep Space Network. 

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In 2013, our Deep Space Network celebrated its 50th birthday! This is the network that transmitted Neil Armstrong’s famous words, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Some of its more recent accomplishments? Gathering the last bits of data before Cassini dove into Saturn’s upper atmosphere, pulling down the “heart” of Pluto and talking to the Voyager probes as they journeyed into interstellar space!

7. SCaN Testbed becomes an official Hall of Famer. 

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In 2012, we installed the SCaN Testbed, which looks like a blue box in the above picture, on the space station! We built the testbed out of Software Defined Radios, which can change their functionality and employ artificial intelligence. These radios will help us adapt to the increasingly crowded communications landscape and improve the efficiency of radio technology. The Testbed was so ground-breaking that it was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2019.

8. Moon mission communications system, secured! 

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Just a few weeks ago, we held a ribbon-cutting for the Near Earth Network’s Launch Communications Segment, which will support Artemis missions as they rocket toward the Moon! During initial, dynamic phases of launch, the segment’s three stations will provide communications between astronauts and mission controllers, giving them the data necessary to ensure crew safety. 

9. Deep Space Station antenna introduces “beam waveguide” technology. 

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On October 1, 2014, in Canberra, Australia, the Deep Space Network’s Deep Space Station 35 (DSS-35) antenna went operational. It was the first of a number of new antennas built to support the growing number of deep space missions! The antenna is different from other antennas that were built before it. Older antennas had a lot of their equipment stored high up on the antenna above the dish. DSS-35 uses “beam waveguide” technology that stores that equipment underground. This makes the weight sitting on the dish much lighter, cuts down on interference and makes the antenna much easier to operate and maintain.

10. Hello, Alaska! 

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Last — but certainly not least — we expanded our presence in the 49th state, Alaska! While this picture might look like antennas rising from the forests of  Endor, the one in the foreground is actually an antenna we installed in 2014 in partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Because of its proximity to the polar north, this 11-meter beauty is uniquely situated to pull down valuable Earth science data from our polar-orbiting spacecraft, contributing to scientists’ understanding of our changing planet!

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