Space flight controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory may soon be spending most of their time in cyberspace -- not to navigate the Internet as most computer users would -- but to monitor real-world spacecraft exploring new vistas in space billions of miles away.
The three-dimensional software tool that will make this possible -- called the Cyberspace Data Monitoring System -is currently under development at the Laboratory and being designed to monitor the health and status of spacecraft and Earth-orbiting satellites.
The new software boasts colorful display grids of spacecraft subsystems. Each grid can be rotated at different angles to give controllers different dimensional views of the data. If the information is being viewed at more than 100 percent on the screen, the controller can "fly over" the data grid using a mouse and zoom in on other subsystem information. Up to 20 or 30 individual spacecraft can be monitored simultaneously with this new cyberspace feature.
"This graphical interface represents a next generation approach to monitoring systems for a variety of space flight and terrestrial applications," said Dr. Ursula Schwuttke, supervisor of the JPL Flight Projects Office Information Systems Testbed, which is developing the software interface.
"There are myriad advantages to displaying spacecraft subsystem information in an abstract, visual way," she said. "Most importantly, a visual software interface allows us to display a dramatically increased amount of data all at the same time and it gives operators immediate visual recognition of potential problems by using icons that change in color or begin flashing when a situation is becoming serious on board the craft."
The system is a departure from conventional text-based software programs. Rather than displaying tables of alphanumeric data and text, the cyberspace environment presents data in three dimensions, using specified colors and shapes, such as squares, circles and diamonds, to denote different data channels and values. Motion is used to denote changes in status quo.
In the 3-D environment, flight controllers can pitch, yaw, roll, zoom in and zoom out of data grids that are displaying information about the status of spacecraft subsystems such as power, temperature, alarms and star calibration reference points.
When a channel goes into alarm, its corresponding channel object or icon changes color and position, said Robert Angelino, lead software developer for the cyberspace project. Two types of alarms are detected by the system: conventional limit-based alarms and trend alarms, which have not typically been used in monitoring systems.
"Trend alarms display the rate of change of a channel value," Angelino said. "If the rate of change exceeds a predefined magnitude over a predefined time period, then the channel triggers a trend alarm. So, for instance, if the temperature on board the spacecraft is heating up to unusually high levels, or a gyro is beginning to drift off course, the corresponding channel objects will change colors from yellow to red. The channel objects will also spin if they are in yellow and flash if they are being displayed in red.
"This scheme allows for the unambiguous display of all the various alarm combinations," he said. "At any time, regardless of whether a channel is in alarm, the user can click on a channel object using the mouse and pop up a text window that displays all the information about the channel that was selected, including its value and alarm status."
The software provides mission analysts with short- and long-term trend analysis capabilities. Short-term trend analysis, consisting of the trend alarming system of spinning and flashing motions and color changes, occurs automatically. On-demand, long-term trend analysis will provide detection of alarm conditions that manifest themselves over extended periods of time and the ability to display plots of any telemetry channel over the same time periods.
"Trend analysis is very important since JPL's Multimission Ground Data System does not provide that capability and mission analysts currently have access to trend information only if the analysis has been performed by hand," Schwuttke said.
Cyberspace data monitoring software has been installed in JPL's mission operations center and is being evaluated using real data from the Magellan, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft. Data from all three missions can be displayed in a single window and many more space flight missions could be added to the system.
The software is also in the process of being installed at Kirtland Air Force Base at the Phillips Lab Payload Operations Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the TAOS (Technology for Autonomous Operational Survivability) mission, Schwuttke said. In addition, the software is becoming increasingly popular within the Air Force. A version of the program that displays data from TAOS, the Miniature Seeker Technology Integration (MSTI-II) mission and other satellite missions was demonstrated in November at Onizuka Air Force Base in Sunnyvale, Calif.
The cyberspace interface is being developed as a generic monitoring application that will be versatile and applicable to a variety of ground-based industrial uses, such as monitoring levels of radiation in nuclear power plants or levels of toxicity at chemical waste sites.
"The software clearly allows considerable flexibility in selecting the classification and level of detail to be used for routine monitoring of data," Schwuttke noted. "Cyberspace monitoring interfaces can also work as a companion piece to other data processing tools for more detailed data visibility."
Development of the Cyberspace Data Monitoring System is being carried out with funding from the U.S. Air Force and the JPL Multimission Operations Systems Office for NASA's Office of Space Science.
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