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NASA taps commercial partners for near-Earth communications network

SpaceX and Kuiper in the $278.5m mix to replace space agency's Tracking Data and Relay Satellite fleet

NASA is lavishing a combined $278.5m on six US companies for near-Earth space communication services.

The cash is for the development and demonstration of services that the agency will use as its existing Tracking Data and Relay Satellite (TDRS) fleet is decommissioned.

The geostationary TDRS satellites enable communication between ground stations and spacecraft in orbit such as the Hubble Space Telescope or the International Space Station.

The first was launched at the beginning of the Space Shuttle era (the second was destroyed with the Challenger).

All told, 12 TDRS satellites have reached orbit, of which two are now retired, two are in storage as spares, and eight are active. The oldest of the active sats was launched on Space Shuttle Endeavour's third flight at the beginning of 1993.

Eyeing the success of NASA's commercial cargo and crew activities, the Communications Services Project (CSP) is to run over five years and NASA expects companies to match or exceed its own contributions.

The finish line? A potential long-term contract from the agency for near-Earth operations as NASA-owned and operated systems are wound down.

The six are a mix of the usual suspects and some newish faces. Inmarsat has been awarded $26.6m for a commercial radio frequency-based relay network. SES, Telesat, and Viasat are similarly going down the radio route, although with C-band and Ka-band networks, and have scored $28.96m, $30.65m, and $53.3m respectively. The networks will hang in geostationary, medium, and low-Earth orbit.

Dodging the radio option is SpaceX, awarded $69.95m, and Amazon's Kuiper Government Solutions, awarded $67m. Both have proposed a commercial optical low-Earth orbiting relay network.

Technology development and in-space demonstrations to prove things work as promised are expected by 2025.

According to NASA's Glenn Research Center: "Adopting commercial SATCOM capabilities will empower missions to leverage private sector investment that far exceeds what government can do.

"Using commercial technology will provide NASA missions with cost-saving access to continual industry innovation, saving money that can be refocused on scientific work."

Eli Naffah, CSP project manager, said: "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."

With thousands of Starlink satellites already in orbit, exploiting commercial know-how when it comes to near-Earth communication makes a good deal of sense. And with the procurement cost of the last TDRS satellite coming in at $289m (exercised in 2011), spending $278.5m over six companies looks like better value for money, relatively speaking. ®

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