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NASA Space Placeby Patrick Barry and Tony Phillips

This artist's concept shows the New Horizons spacecraft during its planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon. The spacecraft is currently using the Beacon Monitor system on its way to Pluto. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)
Click image for larger view.
Now is an exciting time for space enthusiasts. In the history of the Space Age, there have never been so many missions “out there” at once. NASA has, for example, robots on Mars, satellites orbiting Mars, a spacecraft circling Saturn, probes en route to Pluto and Mercury — and four spacecraft, the two Voyagers and the two Pioneers, are exiting the solar system altogether.

It's wonderful, but it is also creating a challenge.

The Deep Space Network that NASA uses to communicate with distant probes is becoming overtaxed. Status reports and data transmissions are coming in from all over the solar system — and there's only so much time to listen. Expanding the network would be expensive, so it would be nice if these probes could learn to communicate with greater brevity. But how?

Solving problems like this is why NASA created the New Millennium Program (NMP). The goal of NMP is to flight-test experimental hardware and software for future space missions. In 1998, for instance, NMP launched an experimental spacecraft called Deep Space 1 that carried a suite of new technologies, including a new kind of communication system known as Beacon Monitor.

The system leverages the fact that for most of a probe's long voyage to a distant planet or asteroid or comet, it's not doing very much. There's little to report. During that time, mission scientists usually only need to know whether the spacecraft is in good health.

“If you don't need to transmit a full data stream, if you only need some basic state information, then you can use a much simpler transmission system,” notes Henry Hotz, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked on Beacon Monitor for Deep Space 1. So instead of beaming back complete data about the spacecraft's operation, Beacon Monitor uses sophisticated software in the probe's onboard computer to boil that data down to a single “diagnosis.” It then uses a low-power antenna to transmit that diagnosis as one of four simple radio tones, signifying “all clear,” “need some attention whenever you can,” “need attention soon,” or “I'm in big trouble — need attention right now!”

“These simple tones are much easier to detect from Earth than complex data streams, so the mission needs far less of the network's valuable time and bandwidth,” says Hotz. After being tested on Deep Space 1, Beacon Monitor was approved for the New Horizons mission, currently on its way to Pluto, beaming back a simple beacon as it goes.

Discover more about Beacon Monitor technology, as well as other technologies, on the NMP Technology Validation Reports page, http://nmp-techval-reports.jpl.nasa.gov.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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