Imagine a day when self-diagnostic tools allow future rockets
to phone home with vital information about their condition, location
and performance. NASA engineers hope that day comes sooner than
later and believe the technology could replace expensive ground
systems, reducing the cost of space flight.

The “Flight Modem,” being developed at the NASA Goddard Space Flight
Center’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA, allows a
rocket or any other flight vehicle to communicate with ground
controllers without the traditional and costly equipment typically
associated with flight missions.

“Accessing space is costly, and it represents a major impediment for
both government and industry exploration and research,” said Jay
Pittman, Advanced Range Technology Initiative (ARTI) engineer at
Wallops. “The flight modem and innovations like it could reduce or
even eliminate some of the costs associated with ground-based
tracking-systems operations and maintenance.”

The Flight Modem, located aboard the rocket, basically acts like a
cell phone and places a call, through orbiting satellites, to ground
controllers. The modem can relay the position of the rocket and may
one day also provide information on the performance and health of
the vehicle and its payload.

A prototype system, costing less than $2,500 and based on off-the-
shelf components, was flown in early February aboard a Nike-Orion
suborbital rocket from Kiruna, Sweden. At launch, the modem, which
weighed less than three pounds, phoned home via the Globalstar
Communications satellite constellation. Engineers are now analyzing
the system’s performance.

“This is really a breakthrough for us,” said Dwayne Morgan, lead
engineer on the Flight Modem. “The data looked even better than we
hoped. What this means is that it may be possible to track and
communicate with our launch vehicles on demand, at very low systems
and mission operations costs.”

“Our goal in ARTI is to revolutionize the way we support tracking
and commanding an in-flight expendable launch vehicle. The
performance of the Flight Modem prototype system during the first
flight test showed we are on the right track,” Morgan said.

Pittman said, “When perfected, the Flight Modem could become a
pervasive presence in aircraft and launch vehicle activities and the
basis for development of applications that haven’t even been thought
of yet. We could imagine science or even commercial aircraft
‘phoning in’ data for analysis from anywhere in the world and from
any kind of platform. The cost is so low and the concept so simple
it is hard to predict where and how this technology will be used.”

Additional information on the Flight Modem and the Advanced Range
Technology Initiative can be found on the Internet at: