A New Paradigm in Space Mission Controls

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Images similar to the one above are what most of us think of when we hear mission control room. These rooms are typically used to control launch vehicles – a difficult task to be sure.  Nevertheless, the new classes of Epsilon launch vehicles (Japan) are designed to accept input from regular terrestrial communications services and may render these facilities a thing of the past. The first of these vehicles are slated to launch this summer.

Satellite up-link systems are still needed to communicate with Epsilon space craft however they are designed to respond to server commands issued by regular users on Earth. This means that individuals who launch objects into space can work with them using the same equipment they use every day.

This type of capability is a potentially huge advantage for private industries that launch low Earth orbit (LEO) objects, such as satellites. Most businesses have had to place total faith in the mission control agencies that construct physical parabolic reflector dishes in the past to accomplish this. These dishes are needed to maintain basic lines of communication with objects in space. The organizations that run these ground stations can be rather bureaucratic, however. Bureaucracy of course can make the process difficult…and expensive.

Image: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Image: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Epsilon missions on the other hand are designed to allow direct connections to the control software itself. This cuts out the middleman. Instead of having to contact an external organization that some change needs to be made, satellite operators can now do it alone. That’s a huge paradigm shift from the old way of doing things and the implications for future space efforts are fairly large.

Even if one was to ignore the potential political ramifications of a project like this, Epsilon launch vehicles might very well be safer than options that were previously available to commercial institutions. Additionally, mission control services are sometimes slow to react to satellite malfunctions. Because they are often contracted to watch over so many different systems, one might sometimes be overlooked by mistake (or simply ignored). Under this new paradigm, satellite owners could monitor their own property and as a result, could be expected to find problems before they escalate.

Educational opportunities shouldn’t be wasted along the way either. Regular terminals could be used to illustrate satellite controls to classrooms full of future engineers. Error handling algorithms would have to be employed to ensure that two commands weren’t executed at the same time. It’s easy to imagine that several people would try to get attention from a vehicle at once. Nonetheless, this type of thing could be amazing in courses dealing with physics, orbital mechanics, etc. Some individuals might even check out telemetry data simply because they find it fascinating. Communicating with a satellite for the first time can be exciting. Imagine being able to do so via your iPad or a mobile app.

Commercial ventures could make excellent use of these communications protocols as well. It wouldn’t be too difficult for a business venture to gain immediate control of the packages that they have launched into space. It’s not uncommon for organizations to put different piggyback modules on a single orbiting artificial satellite. If they were to do this with an Epsilon unit, each individual group could control its own module independently of one another. That would save a considerable amount of money when compared to the way things are currently done. It could also make space a great deal more accessible to private researchers who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to send their experiments into space.

What do you think? Is this a positive advancement that should be further developed in the future, or are there issues that might arise by taking this communication out of the hands of mission control contractors?

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