NASA Laser Communications to Provide Orion Faster Connections
The LEMNOS project will provide laser communications services to NASA’s Orion vehicle, show in this artist concept.
NASA is working to forever change the way astronauts communicate to and from space using an advanced laser communications system called LEMNOS, which will enable exponentially faster connections than ever before.
Imagine being able to watch 4K ultra-high-definition (UHD) video as humans take their first steps on another planet. Or imagine astronauts picking up a cell phone and video-conferencing their family and friends from 34 million miles away, just the same as they might on Earth. LEMNOS, Laser-Enhanced Mission and Navigation Operational Services, may make these capabilities and more a reality in the near future. The project was named for the island, Lemnos, where the mythical hero Orion regained his sight, according to Greek lore. Similarly, LEMNOS will provide sight for NASA’s next-generation Orion spacecraft.
“Laser communications will revolutionize data return from destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, enhance outreach opportunities from outer space and improve astronauts’ quality of life on long space missions,” said Don Cornwell, director of the Advanced Communication and Navigation division at the Space Communications and Navigation program office at NASA Headquarters. “As we strive to put humans on Mars for the first time, it’s imperative that we develop a communications system to support these activities at the highest level possible.”
Laser communications, also known as optical communications, is the latest space communications technology, able to provide data rates as much as a hundred times higher than current systems. This means, for example, that astronauts could send and receive ultra-high-definition video from the surface of Mars. No mission to Mars has yet had that capability. Something that basic could have wide-reaching applications, allowing the American public to “ride along” as our astronauts explore deep space while also enabling scientific discoveries with much higher resolution images and data.
The Exploration and Space Communications (ESC) projects division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has been tapped to build LEMNOS in collaboration with the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts. They worked with other NASA centers to determine specific needs the system can fulfill.
“As we started thinking about the possibility of laser communications on Orion, I spoke with the flight controllers at Johnson Space Center who are developing the communications plan for Orion’s deep space missions. They were talking about enabling communications capabilities that we take for granted, but that are so foreign in space, from streaming scientific data and video in real time, to allowing astronauts to watch the Super Bowl or keep up with an election,” said Mark Brumfield, deputy program manager of implementation for ESC. “Being able to connect with society could have great impacts to astronauts’ mental health during the mission. Right now, they wouldn’t be able to make those connections in a meaningful way, but optical communications will give us that capability.”
In the nearly 50 years between the Apollo program and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, data return vastly improved, as evidenced by the difference between Apollo 8’s and LRO’s earthrise images, which were relayed to Earth via a much higher-rate system. While Apollo’s communications system supported 51 kilobytes of data per second, LEMNOS will be able to support communications at rates of at least 80 megabytes per second.
The difference in image quality between the Apollo 8 Earthrise image, left, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Earthrise image, right, is due, in part, to the much higher data rate available for LRO’s communications. LEMNOS will provide another order of magnitude improvement over current data rates.
The project just got underway at Goddard, with a goal to test LEMNOS for the first time on the second flight of Orion beyond the moon. Scheduled for one week with the option to extend for a longer mission, it will be the perfect opportunity to test the laser communications system, operating it continuously for up to an hour a day.
After the initial mission, Brumfield speculates NASA could add more laser communications terminals on future Orion exploration missions. This would increase communications capability because of the line-of-sight requirement for LEMNOS. He says it would be an evolutionary change to the way NASA does space communications.
The Space Communication and Navigation program office at NASA Headquarters provides programmatic oversight to the project. The communications team at Goddard has been tapped to build and implement the system in collaboration with MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
Orion service module and Michoud damage biggest risks to schedule for first SLS mission
WASHINGTON — Delays in the development of Orion’s European-built service module, and damage to a NASA facility from a tornado, are the key schedule risks for the first Space Launch System mission, agency officials said March 29.
The schedule for the launch of Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), currently planned for late 2018, remains uncertain regardless of the technical issues as NASA studies the possibility of putting a crew on the flight, which would likely delay it by up to a year.
In a presentation to a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee here, Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said service module delays and damage to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans from a February tornado are running “kind of neck and neck” about being the biggest issue with the existing schedule for EM-1.
“The delivery of the European Service Module continues to be the critical path for Orion,” he said. The module, currently being built by Airbus in Bremen, Germany, is now scheduled for the fall of this year, but he said that could be delayed. “The delivery date continues to erode.”
Hill said an issue delaying the service module’s development is with unspecified subcontractors. “We’ve got some challenges with vendor-supplied units, and Airbus getting their vendors to deliver on time,” he said. “That’s delaying some of the actual delivery of the overall unit.”
Other elements of the development of the Orion spacecraft are going well, he said, although there have been adjustments to the schedule to accommodate delays in the delivery of the service module. Hill credited that to the experience building an Orion prototype for the Exploration Flight Test 1 mission, a December 2014 flight that put an Orion into Earth orbit for a five-hour mission.
Hill said NASA is still working out the effects on the EM-1 schedule from a Feb. 7 tornado that damaged several buildings at Michoud, including those involved in the assembly of the core stage of the SLS. “We were down for a while there, and still are recovering,” he said. In addition, he said a “snafu” after the tornado damaged a weld head in the assembly facility used to weld the SLS core stage components.
Hill said NASA is seeking supplemental funding to cover repair costs to several buildings at Michoud. “In the meantime, we’re expending SLS funds to do the repairs to get things done,” he said.
“I think we were really surprised by the amount of damage,” added Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “This has been a major disruption to our overall schedule at Michoud.”
Repairing the damage and resuming work at Michoud has delayed the core stage by months, Hill said. “The tornado probably cost us two to three months,” he said. “We’re still evaluating that and seeing what the options are.”
He said NASA is working with Boeing, the prime contractor for the SLS core stage, to see how to recover at least some of the lost time. “Right now, the core stage is the critical path for EM-1.”
It’s unclear how much effect the service module and core stage issues would have on the overall schedule for EM-1, which had been planned for September to November 2018. Hill’s presentation omitted a schedule chart for the mission included in similar previous discussions, which he acknowledged was due to ongoing studies of the feasibility of flying a crew on the mission.
“We’re looking at maybe adjusting the launch date” to accommodate that, Hill said, making the mission’s schedule uncertain.
That study should be completed soon. Gerstenmaier told the committee March 28 that he hopes a final decision would be made by the time the administration releases its detailed fiscal year 2018 budget request in May. Putting a crew on EM-1, he said, “will require additional budget, and it will also require additional schedule.”
NASA inspector general foresees additional SLS/Orion delays
WASHINGTON — A report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) April 13 concluded that the first two missions of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft will likely slip from their currently scheduled dates.
The report on NASA’s human exploration programs, the outcome of a nine-month audit by OIG, also recommended that NASA provide more details about its long-term plans to send humans to Mars, citing constrained budgets and the need to develop a number of key technologies to enable such missions.
NASA’s current schedule calls for the launch of the first SLS/Orion mission, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), no later than November 2018 without a crew. That would be followed by EM-2, the first SLS/Orion mission to carry astronauts, as soon as August 2021.
The OIG report, though, was skeptical NASA could maintain that schedule. “NASA’s first exploration missions – EM-1 and EM-2 – face multiple technical challenges that will likely delay their launch,” the report stated.
The report outlines a number of technical challenges that SLS, Orion and associated ground systems are facing that makes it unlikely NASA can maintain its current schedule for those missions. Work on SLS, it said, has consumed nearly all of the 11 months of schedule reserve it originally had. “With only 30 days of schedule reserves available, the SLS Program may be hard pressed to meet a November 2018 launch date,” OIG concluded.
Orion also faces issues. “NASA considers Orion to be one of the biggest challenges to meeting the EM-1 flight date of no later than November 2018,” the report stated. Delays in the development of the Orion service module, provided by the European Space Agency are the leading factor in the overall Orion delay, as well as technical risks involved with changes in the design of Orion’s heat shield.
In addition to SLS and Orion issues, the OIG report stated that work on ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center has only one month of schedule reserve remaining. Development of software needed for SLS, Orion and ground systems have also suffered delays that could delay the first SLS/Orion launch. “We are concerned NASA will not be able to resolve all necessary [exploration systems] software validation and verification efforts in time to meet a November 2018 launch date for EM-1,” OIG said in the report.
Recent events could exacerbate those delays. The report briefly mentions damage from a Feb. 7 tornado that hit the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. It estimated repairs to Michoud buildings could result in a two-month delay in work on the SLS, whose core stage is built there.
NASA officials have provided similar estimates on the potential delays caused by the tornado. “The tornado probably cost us two to three months,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, in a March 29 presentation to the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee. “We’re still evaluating that and seeing what the options are.”
Another wild card that could delay EM-1 is a decision to put a crew on that first flight. NASA is currently examining such a move, which would delay the mission regardless of other technical issues. The target date for a crewed EM-1 mission is mid-2019, according to ground rules for that study cited in the OIG report.
The report said that, as of early April, the study about putting a crew on EM-1 was still in progress. “To achieve a crewed EM-1 flight, in our judgment NASA must address not only the additional risks associated with human travel but also a host of existing risks to planned missions,” OIG said in the report, citing work needed on Orion’s life support systems and a decision to either human-rate the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage that will be used on EM-1 or accelerate work on the Exploration Upper Stage.
Beyond EM-1 and EM-2, OIG called on the agency to provide more details on future missions and technology requirements needed to enable the long-term goal of human missions to the surface of Mars. Only recently has NASA started to flesh out a manifest of future SLS/Orion missions, primarily for flights through the 2020s to develop a cislunar “gateway” station in preparations for Mars missions.
“While we agree that finalizing requirements for the Journey to Mars through 2046 is impractical at this point in time, we believe that adding more detail to the plan would help NASA focus funding priorities for the systems the Agency will need to develop to accomplish its goals,” the report stated.
That planning is needed soon because of concerns of a potential shortfall in funding. A comparison of projected budgets for NASA’s exploration programs, assuming they grow at only the rate of inflation, compared to the cost estimate from a Jet Propulsion Laboratory study of one proposed Mars mission architecture, found a gap of $18 billion from 2018 through 2026.
Another factor in that planning is a potential extension of the International Space Station beyond 2024, which could cost NASA $3 to 4 billion a year that would otherwise go to exploration programs.
“Whether to extend the ISS beyond 2024 is a critical decision for NASA and its Journey to Mars, particularly because of the funding shortfalls projected during the 2020s and the need for development of key systems during that time period,” the report argued.
NASA's Study of Adding Crew to EM-1 is Completed, Awaiting Response
NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said today that the agency's feasibility study of adding a crew to the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion has been completed and briefed to agency and White House officials. The report is not public, she added, and the agency is now waiting for a "go forward" plan. She also said that NASA is expecting a flat budget for the next 5 years, not even including adjustments for inflation, which will reduce its buying power by $3.4 billion over that time period.
Allen spoke to a colloquium of microgravity scientists meeting in conjunction with a National Academies committee that is assessing NASA's implementation of a 2012 Decadal Survey on life and physical sciences in space. Although the International Space Station (ISS) was built largely to serve as a research laboratory, funding for that research has been constrained because of the costs of building and operating the facility.
Her message was that the budget outlook is not promising in terms of any increase for research funding. Thus it is imperative that the microgravity science community make a "compelling" case as to why proposed research is essential. Decisions also will be needed as to where the research must be conducted. How much must be done on ISS, for example, versus cis-lunar space where NASA is planning to build a Deep Space Gateway. The Gateway will have "minimal" research capabilities, Allen said, but some research must be done there instead of ISS. One example is galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) studies. The ISS, in low Earth orbit (LEO), is protected from GCR by Earth's magnetosphere, but astronauts going to the Moon or Mars will be fully exposed so the research is critical.
Allen laid out NASA's near-term plans for human exploration beyond LEO and mentioned in passing that the study of the concept of adding a crew to the first SLS flight -- Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) -- is completed and was briefed to Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot and "the White House." NASA is now "waiting for a go-forward plan."
EM-1 has been designed from the beginning as a test flight carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft. The first flight with a crew, EM-2, is officially scheduled for 2023, but NASA is hoping to accelerate that to 2021. In addition to assessing the risk to the crew of launching on the first flight of a new rocket, the Orion spacecraft to be used for EM-1 does not have life support systems. A decision to launch a crew earlier would require a schedule delay and more funding in the near-term to outfit Orion with the necessary systems. EM-1 and EM-2 also will use two different upper stages. The more capable upper stage for EM-2 (the Exploration Upper Stage) is taller and requires modifications to ground facilities at the launch site.
The sudden decision to assess the feasibility of putting a crew on EM-1 was announced in February, shortly after President Trump took office. NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said at a later media briefing that there was no "preconceived decision" and he wanted to "let the data drive us to an answer."
The United States is the only country to ever launch a crew on the first flight of a new launch vehicle -- the space shuttle. All other U.S. crewed launch systems as well as those of the Soviet Union/Russia and China have been tested without a crew first. An exception was made for the first shuttle mission, STS-1 in April 1981, because it required humans to land the vehicle. Gerstenmaier said in February, before the EM-1 crew feasibility study was announced, that prior to STS-1 NASA calculated the risk of losing the crew on that first flight was 1 in 500 to 1 in 1000. After 30 years of experience and the loss of the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia missions and their crews, NASA recalculated the actual Loss of Crew risk for STS-1 was 1 in 12.
NASA plans to delay first SLS/Orion mission to 2019
WASHINGTON — NASA now expects the first launch of the Space Launch System to slip to 2019, regardless of any decision to put a crew on that mission, given ongoing issues with development of the launch vehicle and the Orion spacecraft.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administration for human exploration and operations, acknowledged the delay in a letter included in a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released April 27 that concluded that Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) would not meet its current November 2018 launch date.
“We agree with the GAO that maintaining a November 2018 launch readiness date is not in the best interest in the program, and we are in the process of establishing a new target in 2019,” Gerstenmaier wrote in the letter, dated April 12 and included as an appendix in the GAO report.
Gerstenmaier said, in response to one recommendation in the GAO report, that NASA would develop a new launch readiness date by the end of September. “NASA is assessing the EM-1 schedule in light of a number of ongoing activities,” he said, which include the tornado that damaged the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February, disrupting work on the core stage of the SLS, and the ongoing development of the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget request.
The GAO, in its examination of progress NASA was making on EM-1 requested by Congress in the report accompanying the fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill, had already concluded that the mission would not be ready for launch in late 2018 as planned. “With little to no schedule or cost reserves remaining as the programs finalize production and enter integration and testing activities, the EM-1 launch readiness date is in a precarious position,” the report stated.
The GAO noted in the report progress made in the development of SLS, Orion and ground systems, but added that all faced serious challenges with little margin. “The magnitude of the schedule delays that the programs have experienced amid this progress, however, foreshadows a likely schedule slip for the November 2018 EM-1 launch readiness date,” the report concluded.
One example is the delivery of the European-built service module for Orion, which is on the critical path for EM-1. Once scheduled for delivery in January, it has been delayed until at least August. Once delivered, the program requires 12 months of work to integrate it with the crew capsule and perform testing before delivering it to the Kennedy Space Center for final launch preparations.
“NASA officials stated that they would not be able to maintain a launch readiness date of November 2018 if Kennedy Space Center receives the Orion spacecraft after July 2018,” the report noted. “As a result, the November 2018 launch readiness date is likely unachievable unless NASA identifies further mitigation steps to accommodate delays.” The conclusion of the report added that the service module is now expected to be delivered in September, with the possibility of an additional two-month delay.
The report is the second in two weeks to conclude that delays in the SLS/Orion program were all but certain. An April 13 report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General concluded that both EM-1 and EM-2, the first launch to carry a crew, faced schedule slips. “NASA’s first exploration missions – EM-1 and EM-2 – face multiple technical challenges that will likely delay their launch,” that report stated.
Delays in the EM-1 schedule don’t take into account the possibility of placing a crew on that flight. NASA announced in February it was studying adding a crew to that mission. That report has been completed and briefed to both NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot and White House officials. The agency has not announced a decision, although one is expected by the time the White House releases its detailed fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, expected by mid-May.
One condition on that study, Gerstenmaier said in February, was that adding crew not delay EM-1 past the end of 2019. “I didn’t want to go much beyond 2019,” he said in a Feb. 24 briefing. “I felt that if we went much beyond 2019, then we might as well fly EM-2 and actually do the plan we’re on.”
That study had its origins in expected delays in EM-1. Chris Shank, who led the NASA transition team for the incoming Trump administration, said during a panel session at the Goddard Memorial Symposium March 8 that the study had its origins at a meeting where Gerstenmaier said the delivery of the Orion service module would likely be delayed.
“We asked, if given more time, if there are some additional things that you could do with the mission,” he recalled. “This is genuinely a study on how to get the best bang for the buck.”
See photos of the latest NASA rocket piece built in New Orleans
NASA shipped a test section for its new super rocket from New Orleans on Tuesday (April 25), the latest milestone in a journey the agency hopes will one day get American astronauts to Mars. The piece is headed by barge to Alabama, where it will undergo testing.
Crews at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East loaded the 33-foot-tall, 60,000-ton engine section onto NASA's Pegasus barge, which was renovated in 2014 to handle the super-size pieces of the new rocket. The barge will now snake up the Mississippi River and other tributaries on a two-week journey that ends at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
In the coming years, Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans will take on its largest NASA project yet, the Space Launch System. The project marks a new era in spacecraft manufacturing, one that relies more on sophisticated robots than on large crews of workers.
Michoud plays a central role in building the Space Launch System, or SLS, NASA's most powerful rocket to date. The agency spent more than $250 million between 2013 and 2015 to upgrade the New Orleans facility and install specialized equipment to fabricate the rocket sections.
Michoud and the rest of NASA's fabrication hubs aim to deliver the first SLS rocket in 2018 to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. When finished, it will stand 322 feet high, taller than the Statue of Liberty.
The engine section built in New Orleans will be located at the bottom of the core stage and will house a four-engine block weighing 77 tons. The section will be pushed, pulled, twisted and bent to ensure the structure can withstand the millions of pounds of force that mark the rocket's eventual launch and ascent, though it will never actually see space. Actual flight articles will be built in New Orleans in coming years.
The shipment comes as the Michoud Assembly Facility continues to recover from a powerful EF-3 tornado that tore through New Orleans East neighborhoods and the 832-acre campus in February.
The tank was in outdoor storage at Michoud Assembly Facility.
Workers have returned to the 43-acre assembly facility, but not the neighboring National Finance Center, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and employed more than 1,000 people. State and federal officials have yet to say if and when the badly damaged building will be back up and running.
It will take about four months for testing to begin once the engine section arrives in Huntsville. Michoud will be responsible for producing another three core stage articles in coming years.