Space Week may be over, but we never stop thinking about the cosmos! Aerospace engineering relies heavily on software development, so let's explore software achievements that are out of this world!
BearPeak to Mission Control - How would we communicate in space without technology? There are many different systems, so we'll categorize them from the ground up.
Ground / Earth Stations:
These are how we communicate with spacecraft passing overhead. Ground stations provide radio interfaces, so everything at the station, from antenna pointing to signal processing and data reception, relies on computer software. Popular options for ground station operations includes STK (Systems Tool Kit) and the Universal Space Network (USN) Ground Segment System.
Mission Control / Operations Centers:
The heart of space communication, mission control allows operators to monitor a spacecraft's health and status through telemetry data and also send commands.
Communication with spacecraft typically involves the transmission of data in packets. Protocols like the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS) define standards for how data is formatted, transmitted, and error-checked to ensure reliable communication. Telemetry analysis software helps operators analyze data received back from the spacecraft, allowing the team to monitor the spacecraft's health, diagnose issues, and make better-informed decisions during the mission.
Spacecraft often operate in extreme conditions, where manual control is impossible. Software controls the spacecraft's systems, including power management, thermal control, and payload operations.
Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS)
NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System is a network of geostationary satellites, meaning they remain stationary to a fixed point on Earth's surface as it rotates. These satellites provide continuous communication links with spacecraft in low Earth orbit (LEO) through TDRS software. Think of it like a network of cell phone towers in space, helping spacecraft and satellites in space stay connected to Earth.
Deep Space Network (DSN)
The further we send spacecraft away, the more work goes into maintaining a connection. The DSN is a NASA-operated network of ground stations used to communicate with deep space probes and missions. Software tools like the Deep Space Communications System (DSCS) and the DSN Monitor and Control System (DMCS) help manage communications with distant spacecraft.
"Operators at the Deep Space Network take commands, break them into digital bits, precisely aim these big antennas at the spacecraft, and send the commands to the spacecraft using radio waves." - NASA
You can actually check out NASA's real-time deep space communications with Deep Space Network NOW. As of this article, they currently show communications with New Horizons (8.55 billion km away) and Juno (606.00 million km away)!
Many aspects of satellite and spacecraft communication are automated using scripts and custom software. This ensures that routine tasks are being performed consistently and reduces the workload on mission operators. Communication windows are calculated so data can be downloaded when the spacecraft's location in orbit is ideal.
Security software is everywhere, even space: Given the sensitivity of these missions, security is paramount. Encryption software is used to secure communication links and protect sensitive mission data from unauthorized access.
The best way to keep improving space exploration is practice. With all of our mathematical understanding of gravity, distance, thrust, and spacecraft weight, it's wise to simulate every step before sending millions of dollars of work in space.
In aircraft and spacecraft design, software is used to simulate manufacturing processes and materials behavior, helping engineers choose the best materials and construction techniques. Today, software can simulate everything from structure modeling and system failure to fluid flow and thermal analysis. See below for a list of software commonly used to simulate spacecraft behavior.
Aerospace engineers use simulators extensively to train pilots before space missions. Simulations can analyze the aerodynamics and structural integrity of aerospace vehicles, and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and Finite Element Analysis (FEA) software help engineers optimize designs for efficiency and safety.
While it's possible to find and track satellites through a telescope, visualization software provides mission operators with real-time visual representations of spacecraft positions, data, and telemetry. This helps operators make informed decisions during critical mission phases.
Software is employed to perform safety and reliability assessments, including fault tolerance analysis and risk assessments, to ensure the safety of aerospace systems.
If you're interested in exploring space software for yourself, these commonly used software may be great places to start:
Computer-Aided Design (CAD)
Finite Element Analysis (FEA)
Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD)
Astronomy & Astrophysics
Software development plays a diverse and crucial role in aerospace engineering, from designing and simulating aerospace vehicles to assuring safe lift-off. We can communicate with spacecraft during missions and interpret data to best ensure their safety and efficiency. Every achievement is thanks to centuries of mathematical study, testing and analysis, and staring up at the stars with wonder.
If you're interested in learning more about software, check out our services and blog. At BearPeak, we help startups start up!
Founders work with our startup design studio to bring their idea to life. CEOs onboard our experienced Fractional CTOs for leadership guidance. We also connect startup teams with high-quality software developers. We're more than recruiters, we're engineers first, based out of beautiful Boulder, Colorado.
It's important for us to disclose the multiple authors of this blog post: The original outline was written by chat.openai, an exciting new AI language model. The content was then edited and revised by Lindey Hoak.
"OpenAI (2023). ChatGPT. Retrieved from https://openai.com/api-beta/gpt-3/"