New system giving SMAP scientists the speed they need

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The orange-and-white radome that houses the upgraded McMurdo TDRSS Relay System is about 1.5 miles from the actual McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Credit: Philip Baldwin/NASA Enlarge

For scientists now studying the voluminous amounts of data collected daily by NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, speed is everything. A new NASA-developed data-transmission technology installed at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica is giving them the speed they need.

Since SMAP began gathering soil-moisture measurements in the spring, the upgraded McMurdo TDRSS Relay System (MTRS) operating as part of NASA’s Near Earth Network has transmitted terabytes of data via NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) at a whopping 200 megabits per second (Mbps).

SMAP measures the amount of water in the top two inches of soil everywhere on Earth’s surface, distinguishing between ground that is frozen or thawed. The mission is now producing its global measurements with just its radiometer instrument after it was found this summer that the SMAP radar could no longer return data.

With the SMAP radiometer data, scientists will produce global maps to improve their understanding of how water and carbon in its various forms circulate. The data also will enhance scientists’ ability to monitor and predict natural hazards like floods and droughts. In addition, SMAP data have additional practical applications, including improved weather forecasting and crop-yield predictions.

“The mission is downloading terabytes of data; hence the need for a faster link,” explained Philip Baldwin, a systems engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who led a six-member team that spent five years redesigning and building the system that allows for one of the fastest data transfer off the Antarctic continent.

“Not only do they have a lot of data to downlink, the mission’s data also is time-sensitive. We have only 30 minutes to deliver the data from one pass. So far, we haven’t lost any data, and SMAP is happy with the service we’re able to provide,” he said, adding that MTRS is actually capable of 300 Mbps data-transfer speeds.

Other Polar-Orbiting Spacecraft Will Benefit

Although developed to accommodate SMAP’s titanic data and tight time requirements, MTRS eventually will function as a multi-mission asset under the Near Earth Network and become available to other polar-orbiting spacecraft. “This will greatly increase Goddard’s ability to support an even greater range of science missions,” Baldwin added.

The system’s performance is striking, Baldwin said, adding that it went operational in March when SMAP started gathering data. “It really has improved data flow,” he said.

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