NASA outer space communications in peril

NASA’s extraterrestrial communications system could encounter a major service disruption if managers do not keep a closer eye on the deteriorating network’s needs, according to federal auditors.

In a Government Accountability Office report released May 22, officials doubted that the current system can provide adequate coverage for the growing number of missions under the new vision for space exploration.

“The potential exists for the loss of scientific data that would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace," the report states. "In addition, new users will find that, aside from competing for network capacity with each other, they must also compete with legacy programs that have been extended far beyond their intended lifetimes but still return science data and thus take up considerable network time."

For example, the 1977 Voyager mission still requires network support.

The system, called the Deep Space Network, consists of three antennae, located in Goldstone, Calif.; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia. Some crucial components are more than 40 years old.

NASA provided some examples of service disruptions that have occurred as a result of the aging infrastructure.

In November 2005, a prime network server failed, leaving space missions without coverage for several hours. The Stardust, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor missions lost a considerable amount of data.

The network also suffers from confusion about program management. NASA does not have a space communications management entity that weighs the investment needs of each program and directs funding accordingly. In addition, the agency does not have formal oversight to ensure that program managers’ investment decisions are in line with broader agency requirements.

“As a result of this mismatch between agency-level requirements and investment decisions for the programs that support those requirements, NASA has limited ability to prevent competing programs from making investments that, while supporting individual program requirements, undercut broader agency goals,” the report states.

For instance, NASA officials reported that Deep Space Network and Ground Network programs recently almost developed separate array technologies to support redundant requirements for the same lunar missions.

NASA agreed with the GAO’s recommendations, which include:

  • Identifying program requirements for deep space communications capabilities for the near and long term.

  • Determining the extent to which the program’s current capabilities can support those requirements.

  • Developing a plan to address any gap between those capabilities and requirements and then estimating the costs of necessary enhancements.

  • Appointing a NASA task group on space communications to determine priorities for program-level requirements in the broader context of agency-level goals, ensure that decision-makers understand those requirements and coordinate investments to avoid duplicate costs.

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