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Ka-band Collaboration Expands Radio Options

NASA Ka Band Fig 2

Since NASA launched the first U.S. Earth satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958, communications has been the life-blood of non-terrestrial exploration. Radio communication is critical for both the safety of men and women in space (i.e., Apollo 13) and the remote data collection/transmission of unmanned lunar, planetary, and deep-space exploration crafts. Quite simply, more exploration means more data—and more data means higher transmission bandwidth and the need for higher reliability (and, by extension, higher transmission rates mean more data and more science). Now, advances in computer hardware, software, and integrating architectures will allow fixed-function, single-vendor, one-of-a-kind mission radios to be replaced with reprogrammable software defined radios (SDRs) that can operate at these higher data rates utilizing Ka-band frequencies.

NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Harris Corporation have developed the first NASA space-qualified, reprogrammable, Ka-band SDR to be utilized as part of an on-orbit, reconfigurable testbed. The Harris SDR in NASA’s Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) testbed will provide Ka-band operations from the truss of the International Space Station beginning in late 2012. The Harris Ka-band SDR is one of three unique SDRs on the testbed, and is compliant with the NASA Space Telecommunications Radio System (STRS) architecture standard. This SDR provides NASA, industry, other government agencies, and academic partners the opportunity to develop Ka-band and high data rate communications, navigation, and networking applications in the laboratory and space environment, while at the same time advancing SDR technology, reducing risk, and enabling future mission capability. The Harris SDR will also mark the first NASA user of the Ka-band capabilities of the Tracking Data and Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) for on-orbit operations.

The Harris Ka-band SDR provides NASA with:

  • The ability to change the operating characteristics of the radio through software once deployed to space, which offers future missions the flexibility to adapt to new science opportunities, recover from anomalies within the science payload or communication system, and potentially reduce development cost, risk, and schedule by adapting generic space platforms to meet specific mission requirements.
  • A radio more extensible to a variety of future missions, thus allowing NASA to better leverage its investments in radio technology by reusing the radio architecture across many missions and adopting new component technologies as hardware components become obsolete or as new components become available.
  • The capability to update the radio to take advantage of new science opportunities, even after deployed, combined with the exceptionally high data rates achieved by the Ka-band frequency range.

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