NASA seeks to control spacecraft via the Internet

HOUSTON - Lockheed Martin engineers are modeling a new computer architecture that will enable NASA officials to control their spacecraft over the Internet from laptop computers.

Jun 1st, 1998

By John McHale

HOUSTON - Lockheed Martin engineers are modeling a new computer architecture that will enable NASA officials to control their spacecraft over the Internet from laptop computers.

This project is part of a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) approach to consolidate NASA`s future space operations. Designing the architectural model are specialists from the Lockheed Martin Space Mission Systems and Services Inc. in Houston.

Consolidating information for command, control, and maintenance of a spacecraft to sites on the World Wide Web will save money just by "eliminating the large brick-and-mortar facilities used to control spacecraft," says Ken Asbury, vice president of business development at Lockheed Martin. "We like to call the concept http://www.myspacecraftatnasa.gov."

It is currently just a NASA project, but military officials have shown in interest and will probably use similar concepts in the future, Asbury says.

The Lockheed Martin team is competing with experts from the Boeing North American Space Systems Division of Houston for Phase 2 of NASA`s Consolidated Space Operations Contract (CSOC). This is the second step in a plan to develop an integrated operations architecture for future NASA space operations. Members of both teams are working with experts from the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

For Phase 1 of the contract, each company team independently developed an architecture that consolidates NASA`s communications, command and control, and deep-space tracking resources.

With CSOC NASA officials seek to shift responsibility for various NASA space operations to one contractor to reduce costs and free up funding for other NASA projects.

The Phase 2 contract, which will be awarded in mid 1998, requires a ground systems architecture and space-based infrastructure to provide mission and data services to more than 100 existing and planned NASA spacecraft, while simultaneously lowering the cost of space operations.

Lockheed Martin`s model networks NASA`s Advanced Communications Technology Satellite, a simulated scientific spacecraft in the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and an advanced control center in Houston. The advanced control center showcases autonomous ground and spacecraft operations.

Features include autonomy of spacecraft housekeeping and scheduling, as well as extensive use of industry-standard networking hardware based on Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) and TCP/IP technology.

All of the operation`s network hardware is COTS, Lockheed Martin officials say. The key challenge was integrating the equipment, Asbury says. The only adjustments his team actually made to the equipment was tuning the TCP/IP connection to work in space. "All of the COTS equipment was very robust," he says. The TCP/IP connection to the spacecraft is through RF links.

Lockheed Martin engineers integrated the equipment together with designers at AlliedSignal Corp. in Morristown, N.J., and at Computer Sciences Corp. in El Segundo, Calif.

Lockheed Martin experts demonstrated Internet-based spacecraft control by connecting a simulated spacecraft with an onboard ATM switch and IP router to the control center at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The connection, a high-rate asymmetrical link emulating NASA`s Tracking & Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS), was through NASA`s Advanced Communications Technology Satellite.

The Lockheed Martin model`s spacecraft integrates its components and subsystems with an internal local area network. The onboard computer, with a file system and network-compatible operating system from Sun Microsystems in Mountain View, Calif., transforms the spacecraft into a modern distributed data system, Lockheed Martin officials say.

Placing this architecture on orbit with TCP/IP and ATM-based communications turns the spacecraft into a site on an Intranet, and enables direct access to payload instruments.

NASA specialists can process data onboard the future vehicle that they currently collect as raw telemetry. Systems designers transfer information from space-to-ground with the File Transfer Protocol.

Providing equipment and support to Lockheed Martin for the demonstration were experts from Adtech Inc. in Honolulu; Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif.; COMSAT Laboratories in Clarksburg, Md.; FORE Systems in Warrendale, Pa.; General DataComm Industries in Middlebury, Conn.; Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash.; Newbridge Networks in Herndon, Va.; Secant Network Technologies in Research Triangle Park, N.C.; and Sun Microsystems.

The Boeing team is working with Hughes Space and Communications Co. in El Segundo, Calif.; Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, N.J.; and Microsoft. Boeing experts will get help from Science Applications International Corp. in Torrance, Calif.; Litton PRC in Reston, Va.; and reengineering and commercialization consultants from KPMG Peat Marwick LLP in Houston.

Experts from several small businesses will also perform mission planning and operations, maintenance, training, and engineering work for Boeing. They include Barrios Technology Inc. in Houston; Colsa Corp. in Huntsville, Ala.; Johnson Engineering Corp. in Webster, Texas; SpaceTec Inc. in Hampton, Va.; and VTEX International Inc. in Greenbelt, Md.

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