Technology has made it easier for people to conduct their jobs and connect with others across the country and around the world. The job can be particularly tricky, though, if you’re a scientist whose laboratory is orbiting the planet 250 miles up at 17,500 mph, and even trickier if you’re one of the first people working on Mars. Researchers are testing new software on the International Space Station that will make data communications faster and easier for hundreds of scientists around the world as they conduct their investigations orbiting in the confines of the space station.
This new technology builds on work started nearly 20 years ago. As construction began on the space station, a group of software developers proposed a way to connect scientists and their research in space from the comforts of home.
“We created a suite of programs for scientists and engineers to securely monitor and control their payloads on their home computers,” said Michelle Schneider, a system software developer for the Mission Operations Laboratory at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Schneider and a small group of software engineers designed and built this collection of software tools called the Telescience Resource Kit: TReK.
TReK helps package experiment data so it can be easily routed through the space station’s communications network to get it to the ground at Marshall, and then to the science teams wherever they are located. The space network includes both ground stations and an orbiting satellite system. The experiment data can range from individual numbers to large files of data, including video, for delivery anywhere in the world.
Schneider and her colleagues are now learning what life is like from the user perspective as the team’s first science “investigation” is about to be activated on the space station. While the current suite of software is used primarily on Earth, the new TReK Demonstration Payload is software uploaded to the space station to change the way data is stored and transmitted to the ground.
This demonstration payload uses an existing laptop computer on the station to run a special version of TReK that was uploaded from Earth in March 2015. This new capability will allow payload developers to save time when designing their communications interface with their experiments, making it easier and faster to exchange information.
There are two important components to the investigation.
Network Address Storage is a data storage server located in the U.S. lab on the station. It provides scientists and engineers an easy way to share files between their ground computer and their flight computer. It also provides them with extra data storage on the space station.
The Delay/Disruption Tolerant Network (DTN) is a new capability that allows for communication over networks when connectivity is not continuous or there is a long delay in communications. Delay or disruption in any network path can cause problems in the transfer of data between a ground computer and a flight computer. In the past, flight and ground computers used in-space systems running specialized software to store data during periods of disruption, and sent it when a transmission link became available. If the data was interrupted by a loss-of-signal — a temporary break in communications between the space station and Earth, the data would be dropped and the entire package would need to be re-sent. Now, investigators will be able to use this network to send commands or start receiving a download, and then walk away from their consoles.
The DTN will continue to run unmonitored and, if the transmission is interrupted or delayed, will be able to automatically pick up where it left off when a connection is reestablished with no loss of information or files. This may prove particularly useful for the journey to Mars where astronauts are likely to face greater communication delays as they venture farther from Earth.
This network provides a standard way of performing these functions, alleviating the need for additional special software, and making it easier for scientists to exchange information with their orbiting payloads. Using DTN, scientists and engineers can automate their operations and ensure they will not lose data during periods when the ground is not in contact with the space station.
Schneider and her teammates set out to create tools that were easy to install, deploy and use to meet the needs of scientists at space agencies, industry and academia around the world. The TReK system has proven its worth over the course of more than 2,000 investigations from over 95 countries on the space station, as well as other missions.
“We wrote the software so it could be used to support a variety of projects,” Schneider said. “For example, we used the software to support FASTSAT — a small satellite with six experiments on board that launched in 2010 — and the WB57 Ascent Vehicle Experiment (WAVE) in 2004, which recorded High Definition video and Near Infrared images of Space Shuttle launches.”
The TReK applications allow scientists to customize communications to their specific environment because every payload is unique, and the data acquired can change the world.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense