Experiments Begin With SCaN Test Bed on ISS

The SCaN test bed will conduct an experiment with TDRS-K, which was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in January. Photo Credit: Julian Leek / AmericaSpace
The SCaN test bed will conduct an experiment with TDRS-K, which was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in January. Photo Credit: Julian Leek / AmericaSpace

Experiments using NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) experiments have begun after completing its checkout on the International Space Station (ISS).

According to NASA, “The SCaN test bed is an advanced, integrated communications laboratory facility that uses a new generation of software-defined radio (SDR) technology to allow researchers to develop, test, and demonstrate advanced communications, networking, and navigation technologies in space.”

Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace
Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

This technology will allow radio characteristics and functionality to be changed by simply altering software and can be extended to any radio built to its standard. The project was previously known as the Communications, Navigation, and Networking re-Configurable Testbed (CoNNeCT). Activities completed in February successfully “checked out” the payload, including antenna systems and software on the three TDRS. This system is intended for use upon the ISS for the next six years; experiments underway include making advancements in the S-band and Ka-band SDR technology. This would allow the system to stay in use on the space station nearly through its scheduled end of service in 2020.

An experiment will take place utilizing the recently-launched Tracking and Data Relay-K satellite (known as TDRS-K or TDRS-11, the “new generation” TDRS satellite designed by Boeing and launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Jan. 31, 2013). This will be the first in-orbit demonstration using a TDRS satellite to acquire and auto-track an object in low-Earth orbit using the Ka-band.

Many centers are making headway in testing the system, led by Glenn Research Center and including Goddard Space Flight Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Johnson Space Center. In cooperation with NASA, the system’s SDRs were designed by General Dynamics and Harris Corp.

Moreover, the test bed will extend participation to agencies outside of NASA, such as academic and governmental institutions. NASA is currently soliciting proposals from other agencies to participate in the development and demonstration of SCaN; this phase of experimentation is intended to begin in 2014. Government agencies, industries, and academic institutions are encouraged to visit the test bed’s experimenters’ website for more information; a handbook, among other documents of interest, are available for those interested in this project.

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  1. Do I detect a whiff of NIH syndrome here ?
    For a number of years JPL has had a UHF SDR – called Electra supporting the extremely successful NASA Mars missions, including MSL Curiosity.
    Why has there been no attempt by NASA to re-use an existing technology for this application ?
    Or is JPL not really a part of NASA ?

  2. The SCaN Testbed has three radios on it, one supplied by JPL, which is an Electra, similar to the ones orbiting and on Mars, but operating at S-band instead of UHF, and with a faster processor, more FPGA, more memory, and more importantly, using a new NASA standard software environment. The other two software defined radios are from commercial providers (GD and Harris), both of whom have a long history of providing radios to NASA and other spaceflight customers. Both of those radios are also compliant with the new NASA standard. One of the reasons for the standard is to facilitate portability of software between radios.

    SCaN Testbed is a unique experimental platform for working out the details of this portability. Three radios, developed by different organizations, designed for software portability, and open to all proposers who would like to experiment with it. There are things you can do with SCaN Testbed that you cannot do with the radios at Mars: The Electras at Mars are fully occupied bringing back Gigabits per day of science data; and the SCaN Testbed is specifically designed to support multiple software loads and experimental use.

    So, to answer Stuart’s question, we *are* re-using existing technology from the Electras at Mars. If you were to look at a block diagram of an Electra, and a block diagram of the JPL radio in SCaN Testbed, they would look very similar.

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