NASA-JPL Capstone

Improving the efficiency of uplink operations for upcoming Europa Clipper mission.

  • Role

    • UX Research Lead
    • Project Management
  • Timeline

    • 22 weeks
    • March - August 2018 (ongoing)
  • Contributions

    • Team management
    • Client management
    • Participant recruitment
    • Remote user testing
    • SME interviews
    • Participant interviews
    • Data synthesis & insight generation
  • Team

    • Gabriel Hughes
    • Victoria Song
    • Will Oberleitner

The Challenge

The Europa Clipper mission has a requirement to support 1:1 uplink operations which is significantly faster than past orbiter missions (4:1 on Cassini). NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has tasked us with designing a solution that helps instrument scientists and their partners, plan and schedule activities for their instruments faster and more efficiently than prior missions.

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A 22 week graduate capstone project sponsored by NASA JPL’s Ops Lab. We are working with them to improve operations on orbiter missions like the Europa Clipper mission, set to launch in the 2020s.

The Europa Clipper mission, set to launch in another 4-5 years, will place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter’s icy moon Europa to determine the possibility for life. The mission is in its early planning stages as plans and trajectories are still being created. At the same time, a suite of software tools are being created to aid mission operations as they have been traditionally fragmented across instrument teams . We are working with JPL’s Ops Lab to research how other missions (past and present) operate in order to provide design recommendations on how to improve the efficiency of spacecraft planning and scheduling for Europa Clipper.

Why is this needed?

While mission personnel take lessons learned from each mission to the next mission, there has never been a strategic approach to how advancements in software development and automation might help support the heavy human resource required to sustain uplink operations. There isn’t a lack of desire to do so, but rather because missions take decades of planning and execution. As an example, the last L1 orbiter mission Cassini-Huygens, was designed in the 1980s with the lack of modern software technology. Cassini supported 4:1 uplink operations which means it took 4 times as long to plan and schedule activities as it did to execute them. With a tighter budget this time around, Europa has a requirement to support 1:1 uplink operations as human resource and time means additional funding.


In tackling a complex and unfamiliar domain, it was essential we establish core research objectives to help guide our information discovery. The following are the three main areas we needed to gain knowledge in:

Make sense of the organizational structure within JPL and the flow of interactions that define operations for orbiter missions

Because so few resources on the details of mission operations and organizational structure are available publicly, and the ones that are involve unfamiliar domain-specific jargon, we needed to speak to people at JPL to learn about internal team structures- how teams are formed and how decisions are made. Our goal here was to eventually identify specific roles to consider as our primary stakeholders and how they interact with their colleagues.

Learn about the intricacies of planning, scheduling, and sequencing involved in uplink operations

Planning, scheduling, and sequencing is an iterative and complex process. We needed to understand what goes on within the process as well as decision points and how they affect the overall process. We accomplished this through interviews and an iterative diagramming exercise, detailed below (page number).

Understand perspectives on how software has been used on past missions to aid in planning and scheduling

We know that similar software has always been used as aids for scientists and engineers on each mission. We wanted to learn about the pain points and shortcomings of legacy tooling to help us identify a problem space.

// Our methods

// Our participants

It was a challenge selecting participants as NASA is a large government organization with many bureaucratic processes. As a student group, we had an advantage in recruiting because scientists and engineers are a friendly group and passionate about imparting knowledge. However, there were many times when we had to turn down interview time as to not overstep the boundaries of our sponsors. The Europa Clipper mission is currently in a sensitive phase and we were prohibited from speaking to anyone on the mission which meant we had to be very creative with the people we recruited.

All but one of our 13 interviews were conducted remotely which we identified as a challenge from the beginning. Early on, we identified contextual inquiry as an ideal method to learn about mission operations but bureaucratic constraints such as security clearance made this an impossible ask.

Interview timeline and participant background.

Science Planners

Science planners are heavily involved throughout pre-launch mission planning and subsequent operations. They may hold other titles, but as science planners they are responsible for ensuring instrument teams’ plans stay on track with mission objectives. They, like systems engineers, also integrate plans across science teams to find conflicts but are not as involved with engineering as systems engineers.

Instrument Scientists

Instrument scientists on each instrument as well as their group leads are primarily responsible for developing detailed plans for their instrument’s data collection (and their instrument’s only). Instrument teams can be scattered across the country or across the world, depending on the mission, and are often solely concerned with their science and the health of their instruments.

Investigation Scientists

These roles act as a liaison between management at JPL, instrument science teams, and engineers responsible for calculating trajectories and maintaining the health of the spacecraft. They represent their instrument team’s needs during negotiations and help ground scientists’ desires within the reality of spacecraft constraints.

Systems Engineers

Systems engineers are active in the mission from the start, as they help design the structure of the mission and the software to be used in planning and operations. This is a fluid role that is generally responsible for coordinating among teams of scientists and engineers. Many are primarily responsible for integrating the plans of scientists and engineers, iteratively modeling them to find conflicts, and eventually sequencing commands that get uplinked to the spacecraft.

NASA Ames Researchers

Two researchers were identified as experts in automation and planning and scheduling. Both of them have spent their career researching and building prototypes for high stake mission control and temporal planning.

JPL Design Researchers

A group at JPL is in the early phases of working on a similar problem so interviewing them was essential for us to not waste overlapping efforts. We fully shared our interview notes and process with them as well.

// Sensemaking

Two primary activities help us manage all the information we learned from our interviews— diagramming and affinity mapping. Our affinity mapping process took over two weeks as we narrowed down from hundreds of post its on three foam boards into 36 themes and 8 insights. The diagramming activity was an iterative process throughout our research phase. As we uncovered new information from each interview, we would add it to our process flow and use it in our next interview to validate our understanding and revise any mistakes. It also helped us keep track of where we were missing information in the complex process.


Process flow diagramming was an essential part of our sensemaking process. Although we took meticulous notes, we were learning so much new information with each interview that it was difficult to keep track of the sequence of events and identify gaps of knowledge without mapping out what we already know.

The first digital version of our process flow diagram.

We iterated on our diagram over 8 weeks, trying to make sense of the downlink to uplink process.

The current iteration of our diagram.. We will continue to update it as we learn more.

We also created diagrams for tour design, instrument shared opportunities, and a concept map to visualize our knowledge and confirm our learnings.

As we were trying to understand how instruments might collaborate with each other, we grouped the science opportunities with the instruments that would want to collect this data.

The process, needs, fears, and pain points of our participants are captured here.

Affinity Mapping

A crucial part of our process that was completed over two weeks with at least 6 different overhaul revisions. We began by mapping themes high level mission themes, then moved to organizing by mission phase, and finally multiple iterations of themes that then informed our insights.

One of our early attempts at grouping themes. These themes were too broad and didn’t prove to be helpful.

Week 2 and multiple iterations later, insights have been extracted from themes.

// Our insights

From our insights, we established the following design principles to help guide our concept development, moving forward:

Detailed research report can be found here.


Concept 1 - Geo-Spatial Scheduling. Illustration by Will Oberleitner.