Next Generation Aerospace Communications
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
For the first time in 30 years, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland opened the doors to a brand-new mission-focused facility that will support the agency’s Artemis and Advanced Air Mobility missions. On August 30, 2023, NASA management and local officials cut the ribbon to the Aerospace Communications Facility (ACF), a new building designed for advanced radio frequency (RF) and optical communication technology research and development.
The ACF brings together more than 80 researchers, currently located in seven separate buildings across Glenn’s main campus, to one 54,000 square-foot building. It houses 25 research laboratories, several collaboration spaces, a large RF-shielded high bay space, and both rooftop and ground-based antennae fields.
“The facility gives us a lot of opportunities to integrate these labs together in new and unique ways,” said Dr. James Nessel, Chief of NASA Glenn’s Advanced High Frequency Branch. “For example, there are fiber-optic lines running throughout the entire building. So, we can easily set up a system in one space and communicate with another without physically having to move the two systems together.”
The new facility further enables the development and testing of cognitive communications systems, which will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize future networks in low-Earth orbit and deep space.
“I’m really looking forward to having a common research network that can be shared across projects,” said Dr. Rachel Dudukovich, cognitive networking lead for NASA Glenn’s Cognitive Communications project. “We will be able to share software and test equipment among projects and have areas where we can visually display the real-time decision-making process of our cognitive engine.”
Key features of the structure allow researchers to pursue new tests and measurements of various types of communication, including RF, cellular, optical, and quantum. The highbay space is built from conductive concrete and lined with RF-absorbing panels, creating a quiet, controlled environment with no external influence from outside signals.
“This new building is helping us realize innovative capabilities we’ve been developing for several years now,” said Nessel. “We call it the MATRICS.”
Like the movie it’s named after, MATRICS — short for Multiple Asset Testbed for Research and Innovative Communications Systems — simulates the experience of being on another world: the lunar surface. The Moon has unique features, like lunar dust, rough terrain, mountains, and craters, and researchers are uncertain exactly how communications systems would function in that environment. The MATRICS facility uses high-fidelity models, simulations, and physical hardware connections to simulate RF conditions on the Moon, allowing researchers to test communications hardware developed both in-house and commercially.