Mission System Software

Mission systems are integral to the development and operation of JPL’s spacecraft. Orbiters and in-situ spacecraft all utilize mission system software for design analysis, planning, engineering and science data analysis, and anomaly investigation.

The primary objectives for mission system research are to:

  1. Enable more effective utilization of spacecraft resources
  2. Reduce the cost of spacecraft operations

An additional objective is to increase capabilities to enable more complex missions and more sophisticated instruments.


Selected Research Areas


Virtual ‘In-Situ’ Surface Operations Planning

View from OnSight screen
A screen view from OnSight, a software tool developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in collaboration with Microsoft. OnSight uses real rover data to create a 3-D simulation of the Martian environment where mission scientists can "meet" to discuss rover operations.

Mars surface operations planning has traditionally revolved around analysis of two-dimensional images taken by surface rovers and overhead spacecraft. OnSight is a new technology that connects scientists and engineers with the environment of the Mars rovers through a virtual presence. Using actual Mars rover imagery and Microsoft’s HoloLens holographic computer, a 360 degree, 3-dimensional view of the Martian terrain is presented to scientists and mission planners. Multiple users can ‘move’ around the Martian terrain to examine physical features and to plan rover operations.


Mission and Instrument Operations Planning

Operations planning represents a significant area for research. Typical planning activities involve:

  1. Human analysis of data collected during prior observations
  2. Manual selection of new observation targets
  3. Assembling of observational campaigns

This current process can be labor-intensive.  Future capabilities could automate the analysis of observation data and the development of both tactical and strategic operations plans. This improvement in efficiency could enable a faster planning process, perhaps including in-situ development of operations plans in real-time.  Overall, this automation could enable a more effective and less costly planning process.


Mission Control Technology

Mission Operations Planning
New systems could automate planning of mission operations activities and reduce the need for human intervention.

Mission control technologies provide tactical and strategic direction for spacecraft operations. Requests for specific science investigations, requirements from engineers to maintain spacecraft health, and responses to current spacecraft conditions all need to be accounted for. Research areas target improving the level of ground-based automation for spacecraft commanding through more efficient analysis of telemetry data, and through the use of standardized command and telemetry dictionary representations.


Data Management Technology

Data management, analysis, and trending is critical to determining spacecraft health. Research includes developing flexible correlation and comparison techniques for telemetry data.


Spacecraft Analysis Technology

Mission Control Planning
Current mission control areas.

Models of spacecraft state and performance provide mission systems with tools for predictive and analytical evaluation of spacecraft health and status.  Research in this area includes the development of high-fidelity models of spacecraft instruments and subsystems, as well the capability to quickly and easily integrate these models to develop a more comprehensive estimate of spacecraft status.

These models are used at various phases in a mission’s lifecycle.  During the design and pre-launch phases, models are used to evaluate designs and predict the limits of spacecraft performance.  Post-launch, models would be used to evaluate spacecraft health and analyze any operational anomalies.  Additionally they can be used to develop and analyze scientific data collection campaigns.


Cyber Defense

Increasing system and software complexity coupled with increasing adversarial activity underscores the need to improve the defensive posture of JPL missions against cyber attacks. Currently, the cyber protections applied across JPL vary, based partly on differing risk profiles as well as incomplete knowledge of cyber threats. Such differences in the implementation of protections carries risk to neighboring systems that may have different risk acceptance profiles.

JPL’s Cyber Defense and Information Architecture (CDIA) team is working to raise awareness of, and to address, the threats that missions and infrastructure face. The team is developing a repeatable framework for assessing cyber risk across programs and projects. CDIA is engaged in research and development of cyber-focused, integrated, executable models for the protection of critical infrastructure for oil and gas facilities (Chevron) and the power grid (DoE). The team’s models help identify areas of weaknesses in cyber defenses and determine where risks exist in key aspects of physical plants and infrastructure. Constructing these cyber-focused, integrated models for JPL missions would help defend JPL-specific systems and projects against cyber adversaries.

Furthermore, there is a need to model data flows and trust profiles between JPL and its various partners. There are emerging responsibilities should JPL be the victim or the conveyed source of a cyber attack from or to a partner facility. The CDIA is creating a cyber defense laboratory that will enable the validation of defensive architectures, designs and solutions in a principled and repeatable manner. Specifically, the results that are targeted will advance and broaden core JPL competencies in modeling and verification and validation (V&V) to the important new arena of cyberspace.

Strong support and research is greatly needed in the area of hardening the current mission infrastructure to better detect, diagnose and respond to live adversarial activity and/or intrusion attempts. Such effort would include tasks aimed at understanding and capturing nominal environment baseline data in order to detect:

  • anomalous system behavior
  • changes in system configurations
  • changes in workflow
  • alterations to low-level system communications

These could be indicative of penetration or compromise. Mission systems need to support situational awareness to detect, diagnose and remediate the consequences of cyber attacks.

JPL missions can receive, transmit and process terabytes of science and engineering data every day for decades.  However, not all of that data presents the same risk and vulnerability to a mission, the institution, or partners -- the sensitivity of command data is very different from the sensitivity of ephemerides. Additional research is on the horizon in the area of adaptively supporting security attributes such as confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data where resources may not allow for comprehensive security coverage. The ultimate goal is to better understand how to address dynamic changes to security attributes as the threat environment evolves or risk postures change.