Designing a communications system for a spacecraft is a basic, yet significant undertaking. All spacecraft must communicate, so the general practice is nothing new, but without a properly designed system, well, there could be just radio silence. Literally.
In addition to selecting the right hardware (radios, antennas, amplifiers), the Flight Software (FSW) must be designed to manage all the necessary functions. How should the hardware be configured to listen to commands? To send data to Earth? When should these configurations change?
Just imagine for a moment calling someone and the phone rings forever with no response. There is no voicemail system, just ringing. Forever. Does the other person’s phone not work? Are they asleep? Is their ringer on silent? Are they busy? The key is picking the right hardware (the phone) and designing the spacecraft’s software (the human’s actions) to “pick up and answer”.
This is what we’re doing on Europa Clipper right now. The hardware is already mostly selected (with some details to work), but the software is in an exciting early phase of development. Our team is thinking of how it should work for various scenarios including spacecraft emergencies and how new capabilities might fit into the mix.