Creating common standards for satellite payload designs

Designers of satellite payloads primarily use custom and proprietary electronics hardware designs when building spacecraft, which can be quite costly and time consuming when it comes to testing and qualification. However, a new collaboration between the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and industry – Next Generation Space Interconnect Standard (NGSIS) – is looking to mitigate payloads design costs and reduce development time through common standards.

Essentially NGSIS will create an optical interconnect standard for future spacecraft applications, thus avoiding increases in Size, Weight, and Power (SWAP) of copper interfaces. It will leverage common protocols such as RapidIO, SpaceWire, and 10 GbE for satellite payloads.

Patrick Collier, an engineer with the AFRL at Kirtland Air Force Base, NM, gave a presentation on the NGSIS to the VITA Standards Organization (VSO) last month in Scottsdale, AZ. The NGSIS effort will “develop a scalable photonic bus that provides adequate bandwidth to accommodate current and future imaging payloads and develop an industry physical and logical interface standard for increasing interoperability between manufacturers and integrators,” he says.Collier is making the rounds of different standards bodies to get their buy-in and participation in developing the NGSIS. “We are looking to build on work already being done by other standards organizations rather than do everything from scratch,” he explains.

Collier’s group needs expertise on their mechanicals such as designing the physical layer, the board sizes, and connectors, which is where VITA comes in, says Ray Alderman, Executive Director of VITA in Scottsdale, AZ. VITA can also provide the technical experience necessary for dealing with heavy shock and vibration and other extreme environmental conditions. NGSIS could “help VITA to a great degree on the optical stuff we’re working on and in small form factor electronics.”

“We have a lot of experience doing this at [the] physical layer and the other side of what we want to do is take space applications for small form factor and optical” and bring them down to the VITA level in commercial and military avionics and then down to ground combat vehicles, Alderman continues. It is not as big a leap as it is “easier to downgrade a spec to lower levels than to upgrade it to space,” he says.

Collier says the problem facing spacecraft designers right now is that “current and future satellite payloads generate data that will require current copper data communication infrastructures to increase [SWaP] in order to simply move the data.” The development time and costs associated with designing physical and logical interfaces for a proprietary satellite bus also can be reduced through common standards, he adds.

Everything is custom on a satellite, which makes getting it launched expensive and time consuming, Alderman says. NGSIS will leverage technology standards so instead of customizing every component, they can get the equipment from vendors who can meet specific qualifications, he adds. NGSIS will “not be pure COTS, because there are a lot of other requirements that are just not commercial,” Alderman continues. “However, it is based on a COTS foundation. What goes into Patriot missile systems is not truly COTS, but has a COTS foundation.”

Collier says they will be seeking standards for connectors, cabling, shielding, and so on for space applications.

“Collier and his group have the protocols sorted out at systems level” and he has come to VITA to help sort out the engineering details at the physical layer.

The group plans to have a draft outline of the specification completed by the end of November, a final outline by the end of January 2012, and the draft of specifications completed in sections by March 2012.

The NGSIS Executive Committee Member Organizations include AFRL, SMC/XR, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Johnson Space Center, Naval Research Laboratory, and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Companies participating in the NGSIS Requirements Committee include Lockheed Martin, Boeing Space Systems, BAE Systems, Honeywell, Cisco, LGS Innovations, General Dynamics-AIS, Sandia National Labs, Ultra Communications, and SEAKR Engineering. Completed experiments so far include transmitting Ethernet packets over fiber links with SpaceWire control, transmitting GbE video over fiber links with two cameras used, and inserting a processing unit and testing image recognition and analysis algorithms.

Upcoming research and experiments include replacing SpaceWire with Ethernet as control plane protocol, researching the use of RapidIO cores in place of Ethernet, and inserting passive optical components to replace active optical switch for subsequent tests, Collier says.

The VITA liaison designated to work with the NGSIS group is Greg Powers, Market Development Manager for the Electronic Systems and Space segments within the Global Aerospace, Defense & Marine business unit of TE Connectivity. Powers also wrote an article for this month’s issue on “Expanding options in VPX connectivity” on page 48. Also writing on VPX this month are Bob Sullivan and Ivan Straznicky of Curtiss-Wright Controls, with an article on how VPX standards – VITA 46, 65, and 68 – are using high-speed fabrics to improve performance (page 44).

This issue also includes an interview with Robert Moses, President of iRobot’s Government and Industrial Robots division, on the proliferation of Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) on page 52 and an article by me on how COTS vendors are viewing potential major cuts to the defense budget on page 20.