Low Cost Missions Operations on NASA Deep Space Missions

Monday, 15 December 2014
Robin J Barnes, David J Kusnierkiewicz, Alice Bowman, Ray Harvey, Dan Ossing and John Eichstedt, JHU/APL, Laurel, MD, United States
The ability to lower mission operations costs on any long duration mission depends on a number of factors; the opportunities for science, the flight trajectory, and the cruise phase environment, among others. Many deep space missions employ long cruises to their final destination with minimal science activities along the way; others may perform science observations on a near-continuous basis. This paper discusses approaches employed by two NASA missions implemented by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) to minimize mission operations costs without compromising mission success: the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatories (STEREO).

The New Horizons spacecraft launched in January 2006 for an encounter with the Pluto system.The spacecraft trajectory required no deterministic on-board delta-V, and so the mission ops team then settled in for the rest of its 9.5-year cruise. The spacecraft has spent much of its cruise phase in a “hibernation” mode, which has enabled the spacecraft to be maintained with a small operations team, and minimized the contact time required from the NASA Deep Space Network.

The STEREO mission is comprised of two three-axis stabilized sun-staring spacecraft in heliocentric orbit at a distance of 1 AU from the sun. The spacecraft were launched in October 2006. The STEREO instruments operate in a “decoupled” mode from the spacecraft, and from each other.

Since STEREO operations are largely routine, unattended ground station contact operations were implemented early in the mission. Commands flow from the MOC to be uplinked, and the data recorded on-board is downlinked and relayed back to the MOC. Tools run in the MOC to assess the health and performance of ground system components. Alerts are generated and personnel are notified of any problems. Spacecraft telemetry is similarly monitored and alarmed, thus ensuring safe, reliable, low cost operations.