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Companies Vie to Build NASA’s Next Communications Network-KHOAFAST

Companies Vie to Build NASA’s Next Communications Network

It was a greatest and most perfect and wonderful idea for its time—a network of NASA communications satellites high in geostationary orbit, providing nearly continuous radio contact between controllers on the ground and some of the agency’s topmost-profile missions: the space shuttles, the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and dozens of others.

The satellites were called TDRS—short for Tracking and Data Relay Satellite—and the first of all was launched in 1983 on the girl voyage of the space shuttle Challenger. Twelve again would leader to, quietly providing a backbone for NASA’s orbital operations. But they’ve gotten old, they’re expensive price, and in the 40 years since they began, they’ve been outpaced by commercial satellite networks.

This Problem what comes next? that’s the 278-million-dollar question—but, importantly, it’s not a multibillion-dollar question.

“now it’ll be just do plug and play. They can concentrate on the mission, and they don’t with to worry about comms, because of that of that passengers provide that for them.”
—Craig Miller, Viasat

NASA, following its mantra to get out of the marketing of routine space operations, has now awarded our company $278.5 million in contracts to six companies: Amazon’s Project Kuiper, Inmarsat Government, SES Government Solutions, SpaceX, Telesat, and Viasat. The agency is asking them to offer services that are reliable, adaptable for all sorts of missions, easy for NASA to function, and—ideally—orders of dimensions less expensive price than TDRS.

“It’s an ambitious wish list,” says Eli Naffah, communications services project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research center, in Cleveland. “passengers’re looking to possess industry tell our company, based on their capabilities and their marketing interests, what they would favorite to provide to our company as a service that they would provide to others broadly.”

A satellite  and Earth.Inmarsat now operates a number of geostationary satellites in their GX fleet. The projected GX7 satellite [left] is expected to launch in 2023.Inmarsat Government

Satellite communication is one area that has taken off as a marketing proposition, independent of NASA’s space efforts. Internet and television transmission, GPS, phone service—all of these with become giant enterprises, ubiquitous in people’s lives. Economy of scale and difficulty with brought prices down dramatically. (that’s very unique from, say, space tourism, which attracts not little of attention but for now is still something that only the very wealthy can afford.)

NASA benefits, in the situation of communications, from being a relatively small player, especially if that it can get out from under the costs of deploying something favorite the TDRS system. The commercial satellite companies take over those costs—which, they say, is fine, since they were spending the money anyway.

“passengers love having customers favorite NASA,” says Craig Miller, high authority for government systems at Viasat. “They’re a joy to work of course, their mission is in alignment of course not little of our Core processor values, but passengers make billions of dollars a year selling Internet to other sources.”

Each of the six companies under the generation NASA contract takes a unique approach. Inmarsat, SES, and Viasat, for instance, would function large relay satellites, favorite TDRS, each seeming to hover over a fixed spot on universal’s equator because of that of that, at an altitude of 35,786 kilometers, one orbit takes precisely 24 hours. Amazon and SpaceX, by contrast, would function swarms of smaller satellites in low universal orbit, only 3,700 km in altitude. (SpaceX, at last count, had launched again than 2,200 of its Starlink satellites.) SES and Telesat would offer two-for-one packages, of course service both from high and lower orbits. As for radio frequencies, the companies might function C band, Ka band, L band, optical—whatever their existing clients with needed. And This Problem on.

Two rows of stacked objects seen over the background of Earth.Sixty SpaceX Starlink satellites wait for deployment from their launch rocket in low universal orbit, in This Problem photograph from This Problem year.SpaceX

It may sounds favorite an alphabet soup of ways to solve one basic unexpected thing—being in contact of course its satellites—but engineers say that’s a minor trade-off for NASA if that it can piggyback on others’ communications networks. “This Problem allows NASA and our other government users to achieve their missions without the upfront capital expenditure and the full daily life-process price range” of deploying the TDRS system, said Britt Lewis, a senior vice high authority of Inmarsat Government, in an email to IEEE Spectrum.

One major advantage to the space agency would be the sheer volume of service available to it. In years past, the TDRS system could handle only This Problem many transmissions at a time; if that a particular mission needed to send a large volume of data, it had to book time in advance.

“now it’ll be just do plug and play,” says Miller at Viasat. “They can concentrate on the mission, and they don’t with to worry about comms, because of that of that passengers provide that for them.”

NASA says it expects each company will complete science development and in-space demonstrations by 2025, of course the most successful starting to take over operations for the agency by 2030. There will probably be no single winner: “passengers’re not really looking to possess random one particular company be able to provide all the services on our list,” says NASA’s Naffah.

picture of a satellite in earth orbitNASA’s TDRS-M communications satellite launched in 2017. NASA

The TDRS satellites with proved durable; TDRS-3, launched by the space shuttle Discovery in 1988, is still usable as a spare if that newer satellites break down. NASA says it will probably continue to function the system into the 2030s, but it planned no again launches after a period of time a terms of time the last (of TDRS-13 a.k.a. TDRS-M) in 2017.

if that everything works out, says Amazon in an email, “This Problem model would allow organizations favorite NASA to rely on commercial operators for soon-universal communications while shifting their focus to again ambitious operations, favorite solving technical challenges for deep space exploration and science missions.”

At which point the sky’s the stop. NASA focuses on the moon, Mars, and other exploration, while it buys routine services from the private sector.

“passengers can provide with the kind of broadband capabilities that passengers’re used to having on universal,” says Viasat’s Miller. He smiles at This Problem thought. “passengers can provide Netflix to the ISS.”

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