Jeffery Cleveland is on a mission to save the government a lot of money. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) uses a common software, called Neptune®, to fly all its satellite missions and manage its antennas on the ground. But Cleveland thinks Neptune could be even bigger. “It’s a multi-mission command and control software, capable of flying virtually any satellite,” says Cleveland. Kirkland Air Force Base is just one place that’s already realized how using Neptune, instead of writing all new software for each mission, saves time and money on satellite operations.
Satellites aren’t mass-manufactured; each is built to be unique for its mission. With such variance in hardware and in the data they collect, don’t we also need unique software to run each one?
It turns out no. “NRL was in satellites before anybody was in satellites; what they quickly found is that they can’t keep reinventing the wheel,” says Cleveland. NRL has been flying satellites out of the Blossom Point ground station in Maryland for over 50 years. “Blossom Point has some serious antennas and some serious capability,” he says. “We can handle almost any number of satellites, any kinds of satellites, any orbits; Neptune is the software that does that.”
NRL’s innovation was to realize that, while satellite payloads vary widely, they almost all ride on buses that do the same few things. “The satellite bus is sort of the infrastructure: it handles power, it handles heating and cooling, it handles communications,” says Cleveland.
The Neptune software uses a common software for the functions that every mission does, and then engineers tailor it to the mission. “There’s always mission-specific software, there’s always something that needs to be added,” says Cleveland, “so you have interfaces at the right places, well-managed interfaces, that allow you to do that.”
This saves a lot of money in development and maintenance. “A lot of places, the government buys a system from the space on down to the ground,” says Cleveland. “I worked at one site where there’s a family of four satellites; two are operated by one ground system and two are operated by a completely different, incompatible ground system.” That means the government is missing out on the efficiencies that would come with a common approach.
In addition to operating satellites, the Neptune software also can also manage the ground station antenna array. Traditionally, one antenna listens for one satellite, so it’s not in use most of the time. “Leo missions in particular, you have a 10-15 minute contact, and then you go away for 90 minutes,” says Cleveland. “And just down the street, there might be another antenna, same capability, sitting idle—why do we keep doing that?”
So in 2013, NRL demonstrated how an Air Force satellite operations center (SOC) in New Mexico could, by using the Neptune software, use existing antennas at Blossom Point. “We came up with a capability that allows different SOCs to share resources,” says Cleveland.
Cleveland hopes the Neptune software will help advance satellite research more quickly, and at less cost. “If you’re the government,” he says, “the game is to take as much use of the common software as possible, and minimize the mission-unique software as much as possible.”
Busting apart data: Neptune software takes advantage of commonalities
Every satellite collects and sends down data that needs to be decommutated out of binary code. “That conversion is something that everybody does,” says Cleveland, “so that’s in the common software: collecting, logging, storing, decommutating, and alarm checking.”
The Neptune software does need to be configured for each mission. “It gets down to, you have to tell us what your 1s and 0s mean, and how we can make them into engineering values,” says Cleveland. “We have a way for [the user] to define, with a simple Excel spreadsheet or database, this is what my telemetry looks like,” he says.
The initial setup can be intensive—”But that’s because this is rocket science,” he says. Once done, however, the Neptune software makes it easy for onsite operators to make modifications. “They’re the ones that know the spacecraft, they’re the ones that know what to do,” says Cleveland. As an example, “I know this heater is flaky and so I don’t want the temperature sensor to go off at 50 degrees Celsius anymore, I want it to go off at 60 because the temperature’s creeping up and that’s okay, we’re watching that.”
This is very different from traditional, mission-unique software-where the SOC has to go back to the contractor for modifications, which is costly and time-consuming. Using traditional software is like wanting to change your default page margins from one inch to one-and-a-quarter—and then having to hire a team of engineers to come to your home and install a new operating system.
“What we’re doing, by isolating the common stuff and some mission unique software, we’re giving the local engineers the power to do their job themselves right there,” says Cleveland. “We just teach them how to put that into a script or modify a database entry and they’re done; they never call us, they take care of it themselves.”
Better CubeSats with a standard bus and common antennas?
Nowhere is cost savings more important than with CubeSats. CubeSats started becoming popular about ten years ago, as a way for universities and labs to cheaply try out innovative ideas. They’re often launched with much bigger satellite missions, packed into the extra space in the rockets. “CubeSats are going to change the world for sure—but that’s the payload,” says Cleveland.
Cleveland sees people too readily accepting failure from CubeSat missions, because they’re perceived as inexpensive and high-risk. “I think the numbers would say we’re not contacting way more than we should be contacting,” he says.
He thinks that if sponsors worked with experts to provide a standard bus, keeping the innovation to the payload—”we’ll get you your data, you do the cool payload”—more missions would be successful and research would advance faster.
He’d also like for to sponsors combine ground capabilities into one high-power station, like a Blossom Point, instead of using much lower-capability antenna networks. “You can’t cheap out on the ground,” Cleveland says, “because once it’s up, it’s a satellite; the laws of physics don’t know CubeSats from anything else. You’ve got to communicate, you’ve got to stay up in orbit, you’ve got to find them.”
The initial contact with a satellite right after launch is hard; space is vast, and there’s always some cone of uncertainty. “Even on NRL missions, we’ve launched some very massive things; and it’s hard to separate, that’s the spacecraft, that’s the launch vehicle,” he says. It’s even more difficult with CubeSats, which are too small for much of a radar return and send only very low-power transmissions. “There’s a lot of CubeSats that are never contacted, and they write that off as, ‘Oh, well the bus never turned on,'” says Cleveland; “when I think of a lot of it is, it was talking over here and you were listening next door and just missing it.”
NRL could help significantly improve the success of CubeSats. “What NRL brings to the table is the ops experience and our innovative software to do command and control, so that you don’t have to worry about that,” says Cleveland.
Neptune software demonstrated SOC2SOC and how to learn from failure
As an example, Kirkland Air Force Base used the Neptune software for the Space Environmental NanoSatellite Experiment (SENSE), the launch of two CubeSats in 2013. It was NRL’s first demonstration of sharing antennas between two different SOCs, a capability Cleveland calls SOC2SOC.NRL was configuring the Neptune software for the SENSE mission and asked if they could also use it to just test out SOC2SOC. “But it turned out that on launch day, the antenna the SENSE program had, it wasn’t able to command, it didn’t work,” says Cleveland. “And so they contacted Blossom Point.” Thanks to this resource-sharing “test,” the Air Force continued to get telemetry for the next 18 months (until the satellite deorbited). And even though the satellites had problems, by being able to contact the bus, “You get a lot more valuable feedback, and so that can go into improving the next mission.”
Though NRL configured the Neptune software for SENSE operations, it was a group of Air Force lieutenants they taught to run it. “These guys were fantastic to work with, they got what we were trying to do and it was fun,” says Cleveland. “They came up with the testing, they came up with the displays, they did the ops.”
SENSE is also a good example of how Blossom Point can be used as a ground station by a SOC run remotely from computers somewhere else. “[Kirkland] has been great to work with, and I’d like to see more of that continue,” says Cleveland.
Being a part of choosing responsible solutions
Cleveland’s managed the Neptune software for NRL since 2011; though he’s been at NRL since 1984, when he graduated from Penn State with the university’s first computer engineering degree. “I like integration and testing, I like to find out what’s wrong,” he says.
He’s supported innumerable launches, including Clementine, TacSat4, and WindSat. “I like to think that I’m a rocket scientist,” he says. “I’ve been at the bottom of the tower when the rocket’s going off, I’ve had some great experiences.” He’s now working on a major operations improvement to the Kirkland Air Force Base SOC.
In Cleveland’s office, pictures from previous Neptune missions are tacked up right alongside his son’s drawings of space. His son is now nine. “He’s curious and interested, so it’s kind of fun to talk about what I do,” says Cleveland. “We’ve gone stargazing and I’ve talked to him about satellites and what I do. He doesn’t have a detailed understanding, but satellites are cool and he knows his dad works on satellites—so that’s pretty cool.”
One thing Cleveland appreciates about NRL is the mission focus. “When we find problems, what I really liked is there wasn’t a lot of finger pointing. It was like, what is this, you figure it out, find out where it is.”
He brings that mission focus to the Neptune team, making sure that mission success is the priority. “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Better is the enemy of good enough,'” he says, “which is not a copout to doing a quality job, but the importance of knowing what you want to do and stopping when you’ve done it.”
He hopes the Neptune software will transform the satellite industry. “I like getting to other places and saving other people money,” he says. “I’m happy when they choose responsible solutions, and I think we’re a part of that.”