Companies Vie to Build NASA’s Next Communications Network


It was an important thought for its time—a community of NASA communications satellites excessive in geostationary orbit, offering practically steady radio contact between controllers on the bottom and among the company’s highest-profile missions: the area shuttles, the Worldwide Area Station, the Hubble Area Telescope, and dozens of others.

The satellites had been referred to as TDRS—quick for Monitoring and Knowledge Relay Satellite tv for pc—and the primary was launched in 1983 on the maiden voyage of the area shuttle Challenger. Twelve extra would comply with, quietly offering a spine for NASA’s orbital operations. However they’ve gotten previous, they’re costly, and within the 40 years since they started, they’ve been outpaced by industrial satellite tv for pc networks.

So what comes subsequent? That’s the 278-million-dollar query—however, importantly, it’s not a multi-billion-dollar query.

“Now it’ll be simply plug and play. They’ll think about the mission, they usually don’t have to fret about comms, as a result of we offer that for them.”
—Craig Miller, Viasat

NASA, following its mantra to get out of the enterprise of routine area operations, has now awarded US $278.5 million in contracts to 6 corporations: Amazon’s Venture Kuiper, Inmarsat Authorities, SES Authorities Options, SpaceX, Telesat and Viasat. The company is asking them to supply companies which might be dependable, adaptable for all kinds of missions, simple for NASA to make use of, and—ideally—orders of magnitude inexpensive than TDRS.

“It’s an formidable want listing,” says Eli Naffah, Communications Providers Venture Supervisor at NASA’s Glenn Analysis Heart in Cleveland. “We’re seeking to have business inform us, primarily based on their capabilities and their enterprise pursuits, what they wish to present to us as a service that they would supply to others broadly.”

A satellite  and Earth.
Inmarsat now operates quite a lot of geostationary satellites of their GX fleet. The projected GX7 satellite tv for pc, pictured right here, is anticipated to launch in 2023.Inmarsat Authorities

Satellite tv for pc communication is one space that has taken off as a enterprise proposition, impartial of NASA’s area efforts. Web and tv transmission, GPS, cellphone service—all of those have turn out to be big enterprises, ubiquitous in individuals’s lives. Financial system of scale and competitors have introduced costs down dramatically. (That’s very totally different from, say, area tourism, which attracts lots of consideration however, for now, continues to be one thing that solely the very rich can afford.)

NASA advantages, within the case of communications, from being a comparatively small participant, particularly if it will possibly get out from beneath the prices of operating one thing just like the TDRS system. The industrial satellite tv for pc corporations take over these prices—which, they are saying, is ok, since they had been spending the cash anyway.

“We love having prospects like NASA,” says Craig Miller, president for presidency programs at Viasat. “They’re a pleasure to work with, their mission is in alignment with lots of our core values, however we make billions of {dollars} a yr promoting web to different sources.”

Every of the six corporations beneath the brand new NASA contract takes a distinct strategy. Inmarsat, SES, and Viasat, as an example, would use giant relay satellites, like TDRS, every seeming to hover over a hard and fast spot on the Earth’s equator as a result of, at an altitude of 35,786 km, the place one orbit takes exactly 24 hours. Amazon and SpaceX, in distinction, would use swarms of smaller satellites in low Earth orbit, solely 3-700 km in altitude (SpaceX, ultimately depend, had launched greater than 2,200 of its Starlink satellites). SES and Telesat would supply two-for-one packages, with service each from excessive and decrease orbits. As for radio frequencies, the businesses may use C-band, Ka-band, L-band, optical—no matter their present purchasers have wanted. And so forth.

Two rows of stacked objects seen over the background of Earth.
Sixty SpaceX Starlink satellites look forward to deployment from their launch rocket in low Earth orbit, on this {photograph} from 2019.SpaceX

It could sound like an alphabet soup of how to resolve one fundamental want—being involved with its satellites—however engineers say that’s a minor tradeoff for NASA if it will possibly piggyback on others’ communications networks. “This permits NASA and our different authorities customers to attain their missions with out the upfront capital expenditure and the total life-cycle price” of operating the TDRS system, stated Britt Lewis, a Senior Vice President of Inmarsat Authorities, in an electronic mail to IEEE Spectrum.

One main benefit to the area company can be the sheer quantity of service obtainable to it. In years previous, the TDRS system might solely deal with so many transmissions at a time; if a specific mission wanted to ship a big quantity of information it needed to guide time prematurely.

“Now it’ll be simply plug and play,” says Miller at Viasat. “They’ll think about the mission, they usually don’t have to fret about comms, as a result of we offer that for them.”

NASA says it expects every firm will full know-how growth and in-space demonstrations by 2025, with probably the most profitable beginning to take over operations for the company by 2030. There’ll most likely be no single winner: “We’re probably not seeking to have anybody explicit firm have the ability to present all of the companies on our listing,” says NASA’s Naffah.

picture of a satellite in earth orbit
NASA’s TDRS-M communications satellite tv for pc launched in 2017. NASA

The TDRS satellites have proved sturdy; TDRS-3, launched by the area shuttle Discovery in 1988, continues to be usable as a spare if newer satellites break down. NASA says it would most likely proceed to make use of the system into the 2030s, however it deliberate no extra launches after the final (of TDRS-13 a.ok.a. TDRS-M) in 2017.

If every little thing works out, says Amazon in an electronic mail, “This mannequin would enable organizations like NASA to depend on industrial operators for near-Earth communications whereas shifting their focus to extra formidable operations, like fixing technical challenges for deep area exploration and science missions.”

At which level the sky is the restrict. NASA focuses on the moon, Mars and different exploration, whereas it buys routine companies from the non-public sector.

“We will present the identical sort of broadband capabilities that you just’re used to having on Earth,” says Viasat’s Miller. He smiles at this thought. “We will present Netflix to the ISS.”

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