From The Editor | January 29, 2024

NASA Soon To Rely More On Communications Providers

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By John Oncea, Editor

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As NASA winds down its TDRS constellation, it has partnered with SATCOM providers to fill in the communications gaps and reduce the risk of data loss and communication delays for future missions.

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Well, that last one sounds promising.

You Get A Contract, And You Get A Contract, And You Get A Contract

NASA is committed to partnering with a wide variety of domestic and international partners to accomplish its diverse missions, including the Artemis program and future exploration initiatives to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

The space agency has announced it selected 16 proposals from 12 companies under the 2022 Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity (ACO) to advance capabilities and technologies related to NASA’s Moon to Mars Objectives; committed to investing $425 million over the next seven years into The Boeing Company for the agency’s Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project; and signed agreements with Blue Origin, Nanorakcs LLC, and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation to develop designs of space stations and other commercial destinations in space.

In April 2022, NASA selected six American satellite communications (SATCOM) providers to begin developing and demonstrating near-Earth space communication services that may support future agency missions. For more than a year, the agency has been evaluating the feasibility of employing commercial SATCOM networks for near-Earth operations as it works to decommission its near-Earth satellite fleet. This approach would allow NASA to focus more time and resources on its deep space exploration and science missions.

“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 flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation, and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”

NASA Soon To Retire TDRS

NASA’s partnerships with the six SATCOM providers – Inmarsat Government Inc., Kuiper Government Solutions LLC, SES Government Solutions, Space Exploration Technologies, Telesat U.S. Services LLC, and Viasat Incorporated – are particularly important given the news NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation is approaching retirement.

TDRS is NASA’s network of specialized communications satellites in geosyncronous orbit that provide communications services to many NASA spacecraft. These satellites, distributed over the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, provide near-continuous information relay services to over 25 missions including the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and many of our Earth-observing missions like the Global Precipitation Measurement, Terra, and Aqua.

Many TDRS were launched in the 1980s and 1990s with the Space Shuttle and made use of the Inertial Upper Stage, a two-stage solid rocket booster developed for the shuttle. Other TDRS were launched by Atlas IIa and Atlas V rockets. The most recent generation of satellites uses three different radio wave frequencies (S-band, Ku-band, and Ka-band) to uplink and downlink more than 99% of NASA’s mission data. Data is relayed through ground facilities located in White Sands, NM and Guam.

“The TDRS system … is set to pass the baton to wideband polylingual terminals,” writes Space Daily. “This novel technology offers a potential game changer for future missions, delivering seamless roaming capabilities. By employing software defined radios (SDR), these terminals can receive communication signals from various SATCOM service providers. The SDR technology, developed over the last decade, uniquely enables in-orbit waveform change, facilitating the adoption of new and evolving commercial services.”

The Wideband User Terminal project is a crucial part of the ongoing transition toward achieving interoperability between government and commercial networks for near-Earth services. This project is similar to cellphone technology where roaming is a standard feature. The wideband terminals will provide similar flexibility to space communications, allowing missions to switch networks without any interruptions in the service. This approach is a significant departure from past practices, and it promises to bring about a revolutionary change in space communications.

“The integration of industry and government network providers is a key element in NASA’s stride toward commercialization,” Space Daily writes. “While the TDRS system has served NASA for nearly four decades, its design did not originally account for network interoperability. The Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program is now developing wideband technology to ease this transition, offering a safeguard by maintaining connections to the reliable TDRS network while private industry continues to refine their space-based services.”

Interoperability between different networks has many benefits. It reduces the risk of losing data and communication delays. In addition, it gives missions the option to choose from multiple network providers, which can prevent vendor lock-in and ensure mission execution remains unaffected, even in unforeseen circumstances.

This project falls under the umbrella of the SCaN program which is working to ensure that future missions will continue to have reliable, resilient space and ground communications and navigation infrastructure.

SCaN is working on developing wideband technology that will help the mission user community transition to relying on commercial providers. This technology will provide a safeguard option by allowing users to connect to the reliable TDRS network while private industry continues to develop and mature their space-based services over the next decade.

There are numerous potential benefits of providing missions with interoperability between NASA’s legacy TDRS networks and new commercial satcom services, including reducing the risk of data loss and communication delays. Providing missions with a selection of network providers also can help avoid vendor lock-in and keep mission execution on schedule when unexpected circumstances arise.