Cash, IT security threaten NASA Deep Space Network operation

NASA’s Inspector General critical of budget, IT security programs

Money needed for upgrades to older equipment and IT security issues continue to drag on NASA, according to a report issued this week by the space agency’s Office of Inspector General.

The report focuses on NASA’s Deep Space Network, which through variety of antennas and transmitters at communications complexes in three locations: Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia provides space missions with the tracking, telemetry, and command services required to control and maintain spacecraft and transmit science data. NASA’s international partners also use the Deep Space Net.

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From the OIG report: “Much of DSN's hardware is more than 30 years old, costly to maintain, and requires modernization and expansion to ensure continued service for existing and planned missions. Although DSN is meeting its current operational commitments, budget reductions have challenged the Network's ability to maintain these performance levels and threaten its future reliability. Specifically, in FY 2009 the Network implemented a plan to achieve $226.9 million in savings over 10 years and use most of that savings to build new antennas and transmitters. However, in FY 2013 the NASA's Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Program cut the Network's budget by $101.3 million, causing DSN to delay upgrades, close antennas, and cancel or re-plan tasks.

In addition, SCaN administrators are considering additional cuts for DSN in FY 2016 that could further delay maintenance and upgrade tasks. Finally, despite these reductions DSN has not revised life-cycle cost estimates for the upgrade project or performed a detailed funding profile beyond FY 2018, making it difficult to effectively plan and justify funding for the project and DSN's future commitments. If budget reductions continue, DSN faces an increased risk that it will be unable to meet future operational commitments or complete the upgrade project on schedule.”

DSN management has an upgrade project to build new antennas and transmitters between now and 2025, NASA said.

The demands placed on NASA’s deep space communications system are increasing. For example, as of 2013 the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had sent back to Earth nearly 25 terabytes of data. Even at its top data transmission rate of 5.2 megabits per second, the Orbiter requires 7.5hours to empty its onboard recorder and 1.5 hours to send a single high-resolution image back to Earth for processing, the OIG report stated.

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While the current budget is under review, the OIG said there are other issues around DSN security.

“We also found that NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and DSN have significantly deviated from Federal and Agency policies, standards, and governance methodologies for the security of the Network's IT and physical infrastructure. For example, the Network's system security categorization process did not consider all DSN mission functions, vulnerability identification and mitigation practices and IT security configuration baseline application did not comply with Federal and Agency policy, and NASA's Security Operations Center is not adequately integrated into JPL's computer network operations.

Further, required physical security controls were missing or inconsistently implemented at the three Complexes, procedures to assign security level designations did not comply with NASA policy, required facility security assessments had not been completed, and security waivers or other risk acceptance documentation were not consistently in place. As a result, DSN's IT and physical infrastructure may be unnecessarily vulnerable to compromise,” the OIG stated.

DSN has significant information technology (IT) and physical infrastructure components that it must protect against compromise from cyber attack, espionage, and terrorism, the OIG stated.

The OIG made 12 recommendations, including that NASA develop a realistic, accurate, and transparent budget that supports the Network's ability to provide communication services; ensure DSN follows established IT security policies, standards, and governance methodologies; develop a strategy for implementing evolving IT and physical security policies at JPL.

For its part NASA’s management “concurred with our recommendations and described planned corrective actions. Because we consider the proposed actions responsive, the recommendations are resolved and we will close them upon verification of the completed actions,” the OIG stated.

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