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Tune in, Starliner! How NASA’s Near Space Network Powers Communications

Tune in, Starliner! How NASA’s Near Space Network Powers Communications

Tune in, Starliner! How NASA’s Near Space Network Powers Communications

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. As the rocket launches, white clouds form below and to the left of it.ALT

On May 19, 2022, our partners at Boeing launched their Starliner CST-100 spacecraft to the International Space Station as a part of our Commercial Crew Program. This latest test puts the company one step closer to joining the SpaceX Crew Dragon in ferrying astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory. We livestreamed the launch and docking at the International Space Station, but how? Let’s look at the communications and navigation infrastructure that makes these missions possible.

Third Generation Tracking Data Relay Satellite (TDRS)ALT

Primary voice and data communications are handled by our constellation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS), part of our Near Space Network. These spacecraft relay communications between the crewed vehicles and mission controllers across the country via terrestrial connections with TDRS ground stations in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean.

TDRS, as the primary communications provider for the space station, is central to the services provided to Commercial Crew vehicles. All spacecraft visiting the orbiting laboratory need TDRS services to successfully complete their missions.

Several people, seated in the Control Center, look up at screens on the wall that show a view of the launchpad, times, and other information.ALT

During launches, human spaceflight mission managers ensure that Commercial Crew missions receive all the TDRS services they need from the Near Space Operations Control Center at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There, communications engineers synthesize network components into comprehensive and seamless services for spacecraft as they launch, dock, undock, and deorbit from the space station.

A room with desks. The desks have several multi-monitor computer setups on them, and there are television screens mounted on the ceiling.ALT

Nearby, at our Flight Dynamics Facility, navigation engineers track the spacecraft on their ascent, leveraging years of experience supporting the navigation needs of crewed missions. Using tracking data sent to our Johnson Space Center in Houston and relayed to Goddard, these engineers ensure astronaut safety throughout the vehicles’ journey to the space station.

Additionally, our Search and Rescue office monitors emergency beacons on Commercial Crew vehicles from their lab at Goddard. In the unlikely event of a launch abort, the international satellite-aided search and rescue network will be able to track and locate these beacons, helping rescue professionals to return the astronauts safely. For this specific uncrewed mission, the search and rescue system onboard the Boeing Starliner will not be activated until after landing for ground testing.

An aerial view of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on the the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.ALT

To learn more about NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) services and technologies, visit  https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/heo/scan/index.html. To learn more about NASA’s Near Space Network, visit https://esc.gsfc.nasa.gov/projects/NSN.

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