| Electronics & Computers

Connectors Link Data Networks for Orion and Industry

Data network connectors on Orion find uses in aviation, oil and gas, and trains.

Spinoff is NASA's annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

This 2013 test of Orion's avionics systems shows some of the capsule's complex wiring.

The Orion crew capsule may resemble its Apollo ancestor on the surface, but all of its internal systems reflect nearly half a century of development since NASA's Moon missions. Among these is a 21st-century data system capable of quickly transmitting massive amounts of data throughout the spacecraft with hardware that's as light and durable as possible. An integrated data system runs throughout Orion, serving as the communication link among all of the electronics in the vehicle, both in the crew module and the service module.

From NASA's earliest missions through the Space Shuttle era, crew vehicles relied on separate series of data networks connected via bundles of wires resembling a “rat's nest,” said Clint Baggerman, Command and Data Handling system manager at Johnson Space Center. “You'd have a small network in one place connecting several boxes together, and then a second network in a different part of the vehicle connected to the first, and a third network in another part. If the third network had to communicate with the first one, you'd have to wire those together, too.”

Smith's NASA-improved connectors' primary spinoff applications are in Ethernet networks used in military, aerospace, and commercial aviation markets. It also sells spinoff products in the oil and gas industry.

Moving forward, NASA needed an upgrade, and decided to go with a time-triggered, one-gigabit Ethernet network, in which tasks are timed and scheduled so as to eliminate delays in relaying commands. In the new design, “everything plugs into the master network, so anything can communicate with anything else at the lowest possible mass, with the fewest possible connections,” Baggerman said.

For its new network, Johnson wanted lighter, smaller connectors that could transmit large amounts of data and survive the harsh conditions of space travel — criteria that existing connectors couldn't meet. The connectors used on other networks were either too big and bulky, or couldn't provide the performance NASA needed.

Johnson worked with both Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company (a prime contractor for Orion) and Honeywell Aerospace, the contractor responsible for Orion's flight-management systems, to review submissions from connector manufacturers. NASA also wanted connectors with a higher impedance rating than the standard for communication networks, which would allow more data to be transmitted at lower voltages, so they had to be specially built. “Of course, the connectors had to meet the very high environmental requirements we have for the Orion program, including the ability to withstand takeoff, aquatic landings, and the violent jettisoning of the crew if the launch is aborted,” said Ron Deppen, a mechanical engineer with Lockheed.

Smiths Connectors, part of the Interconnect division of London-based Smiths Group PLC, is located in Costa Mesa, CA. It specializes in electronic components for harsh environments, designed to withstand the high vibration and extreme temperature fluctuations faced by spacecraft and aircraft. While another company also made it through the first round of review, the ruggedized D-sub miniature connectors provided by Smiths Connectors proved most capable of meeting NASA's requirements.

As expected, the connectors made it possible for Orion's data system to transmit more data than the network used in the Space Shuttle era while also eliminating extraneous signal noise, which can cause data loss, especially at the low voltage levels for which the system is designed. Orion's first test flight in December 2014 utilized the connectors, which performed perfectly. Before the design for Orion's connectors was even finalized, though, Smiths Connectors leveraged the technological advances it had made through its NASA work into a broader offering for more commercial applications.

In aviation, the industry is working with a more distributed architecture, putting sensing equipment closer to where an operation takes place — near the wings or near the engine, versus just in the fuselage — where it sees very high levels of vibration. The oil and gas industry has similar needs, as its equipment has to withstand the high pressures and vibration of drilling into hard ground. There's also growing interest from rail companies, whose entertainment and communication systems on heavily vibrating trains use massive amounts of data. The High-Speed Ruggedized D-Sub connectors have proven capable of supporting data networks up to and above 500 gigabits.

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