NASA last month selected six U.S. satellite communications (SATCOM) providers to develop and demonstrate near–Earth space services that may support future agency missions.
NASA aims to use commercial SATCOM networks and decommission its own satellite fleet in order to focus more time and resources on deep space exploration and science missions.
Under its Communications Services Project (CSP), NASA plans to kick in $278.5 million during a five–year development–and–demonstration period, while the six contractors would provide more than $1.5 billion in investments.
“We are following the agency’s proven approach developed through commercial cargo and commercial crew services. By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end–to–end capability leading to operational service,” said Eli Naffah, CSP project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
The private companies aim to lower costs, increase flexibility, and improve performance for a broad range of missions. The goal is to develop solutions that could potentially meet NASA’s future mission requirements while supporting each company’s business model, future customers, and a growing domestic commercial SATCOM market.
The six contracted companies are Inmarsat Government Inc., Kuiper Government Solutions, SES Government Solutions, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Telesat U.S. Services, and Viasat Incorporated.
Each company will complete technology development and in–space demonstrations by 2025 to prove their proposed solutions will deliver robust, reliable, and cost–effective operations, including the ability for new high–rate and high–capacity two–way communications. NASA intends to seek multiple long–term contracts to acquire services for near–Earth operations by 2030, while phasing out NASA owned and operated systems.
“What we’re trying to do is get what industry can and wants to do,” Naffah said in an interview with EE Times. He explained the aim of CPS is to replace the tracking data relay satellite (TDRS) capability that NASA currently has in geosynchronous orbit, which will phase out over the next few years.
The NASA constellation started operations in the 1980s with the Space Shuttle program. The International Space Station and other missions depend on those services today. NASA launched its last TDRS satellite in 2017 and doesn’t plan to launch any more.
“We are looking to demonstrate the feasibility of commercially provided services and to develop an acquisition strategy for going forward and implementing those services, eventually leading to us weaning ourselves off of the government owned–and–operated systems,” Naffah said. “We’re looking at focusing our people and our talents and our resources on science and exploration and on things that the commercial sector cannot do.”
Back when NASA built the TDRS constellation, there were few commercial service providers that the space agency had as alternatives.
“We had to build the system then, but the industry over the last 20 years or so has far outpaced NASA and investments in geosynchronous earth orbit and below,” Naffah said. “You’re starting to see low–earth orbit and middle–earth orbit constellations, so industries are poised with the infrastructure that serves the terrestrial market and SATCOM both. I think we could leverage that infrastructure for space–based users. That’s the goal here.”
NASA has identified six use cases based on the relay and the direct–earth services that it currently uses. The use cases include telemetry during launch services, low–earth orbit (LEO) operations, and scientific data return.
“When we look at what industry is doing, there’s a lot of innovation going on,” Naffah said. “We’re hoping to tap that innovation and those newer technologies to really benefit the NASA missions.”
NASA hopes that it can eventually become one of many buyers of the commercial services, which would help to lower agency costs. One other area that may improve is automation. It often takes weeks for NASA to schedule the use of its assets. It’s a labor–intensive process, according to Naffah.
“The systems that we’re looking at on the commercial side are more automated,” he said. “We should hopefully be able to have ubiquitous coverage where we’ve got coverage on demand in certain instances.”
The commercial service providers may make more use of the Ka band, which should improve data transmission performance, he added.
In satellite communications, the Ka band allows higher bandwidth communication. It is currently used for high–throughput satellite internet access by the Inmarsat I–5 system and in LEO by the SpaceX Starlink system. Planned future satellite projects using Ka band include Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite internet constellation in LEO, SES’s multi–orbit satellite internet system of the SES-17 satellite in geosynchronous earth orbit, and the O3b mPOWER constellation in middle–earth orbit to be launched 2022–2024.
NASA’s acquisition of the new services will be a free and open competition for those that are doing the demonstrations, as well as others that that have services that they’d like to offer, according to Naffah.
“If you look at the cost share, the NASA cost share is very low. We’re investing about $278 million over the next four years and private service providers will matching that with about $1.5 billion.”
By 2030, NASA hopes to provide the commercial services to its space missions.