NASA Making Progress Upgrading Space Tracking Network

This artist’s concept shows what Deep Space Station-23, a new antenna dish capable of supporting both radio wave and laser communications, will look like when completed at the Deep Space Network’s Goldstone, California, complex. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s program to upgrade its 1980’s vintage ground-based tracking network is making progress after years of delay and budget overruns, although challenges remain, according to a new assessment from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) project “is now working toward a final acceptance review date of June 2021—4 years beyond the date agreed to when NASA established the project’s baseline in 2013—but risks remain to completing the project by this date,” GAO said in its assessment.

“The SGSS project is working toward its first operational readiness review, which the project considers the most significant review since 95 percent of engineering work will be complete, but the project has had to delay the review because of issues related to system stability, software defect resolution progress, and antenna pointing restrictions,” the document added.

The review was scheduled for September 2019, but it had not been completed by February 2020, GAO said.

The program is continuing to work toward a budget established in February 2019 that was an increase of 127 percent over the cost baseline established for the project in 2013.

The project summary follows.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees

Government Accountability Office
April 2020

Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment

The Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) project plans to develop and deliver a new ground system for one Space Network site. The Space Network provides essential communications and tracking services to NASA and non-NASA missions.

Existing systems, based on 1980s technology, are increasingly obsolete and unsustainable. The new ground system will include updated systems, software, and equipment that will allow the Space Network to continue to provide critical communications services for the next several decades. The Space Network is managed by the Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) program.

Project Summary

The SGSS project is now working toward a final acceptance review date of June 2021—4 years beyond the date agreed to when NASA established the project’s baseline in 2013—but risks remain to completing the project by this date.

The SGSS project is working toward its first operational readiness review, which the project considers the most significant review since 95 percent of engineering work will be complete, but the project has had to delay the review because of issues related to system stability, software defect resolution progress, and antenna pointing restrictions.

Cost and Schedule Status

The SGSS project continues to work to the revised cost and schedule estimates established in February 2019—which reflected four years of delays and cost increases of over 127 percent since NASA established a cost and schedule baseline for the project in 2013. NASA reports that the government shutdown and contractor performance are affecting project cost and have delayed the first operational readiness review.

Project officials consider the first operational readiness review the most critical milestone for the remainder of the project, as over 95 percent of the non-recurring engineering is expected to be complete by this milestone.

In February 2019, the project was working towards a September 2019 operational readiness review date but had schedule reserves to push it as late as January 2020. As of February 2020, the review was not complete.

The review was delayed because of issues related to system stability, software defect resolution progress, and antenna pointing restrictions. Project officials noted that the government shutdown in December 2018-January 2019 also contributed to some delays because the project was not able to complete integration and test activities that were on the project’s critical path.

Officials also noted a decline in contractor performance during this time due to loss of contractor focus. The project is currently working to resolve system stability issues, but testing has also revealed other technical challenges that will need to be resolved before the project will be ready for the operational readiness review, such as communication problems with the Antenna Management Unit (AMU) that failed a recent test. The project has identified the problem causing the AMU test failure and a fix was being devised as of January 2020.

As of January 2020, the project was determining whether the path from the first operational readiness review to the final acceptance review in June 2021 was still feasible.

Integration and Test

The SGSS project completed a dry run of the first operational readiness review in December 2019 with its review board and a test readiness review in January 2020. Feedback from the review board during the dry run noted that the project had made notable progress but the contractor needed to remain focused on completing the remaining work.

The project executed further testing in December 2019 and successfully received data from five missions currently in orbit, including the Global Precipitation Measurement and Landsat-8 spacecraft.

The project continues to track a risk that has been partially realized regarding SGSS antennas in certain configurations causing radio frequency interference with mission and satellite operations supported on other antennas at the White Sands Complex where testing is executed. The interference has affected end-to-end test events on one band length, and the project is mitigating the issue with workarounds to the test antenna configurations.