[ISN] NASA outer space communications in peril

From: InfoSec News (isn@private)
Date: Wed May 24 2006 - 00:04:30 PDT


By Aliya Sternstein
May 23, 2006 

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

"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

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 programís 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

* 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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