WASHINGTON — NASA is turning to industry for help funding laser communications technology the agency hopes one day to use in the space-based data-relay system that keeps Earth-orbiting spacecraft in touch with the ground, according to a lengthy budget document released March 11. 

In 2012, NASA said it would invest $230 million in a Laser Communications Relay Demonstration payload, including a $3 million contract with commercial satellite builder Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., to host the NASA-built hardware aboard a geostationary satellite with a view of North America. 

Now the project is hurting for cash and must be restructured “to encourage the greater involvement of industry, including industry investments and program partnerships,” NASA wrote in a 700-page budget justification document. In the meantime, the agency plans to start buying modems, lasers and controllers required for ground-based laser communications tests slated for later this year.

The laser communications demo is co-funded by the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters here and the Space Communications and Navigation Program at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The restructuring NASA warns about in its 2015 budget justification is driven by a smaller-than-expected Space Technology appropriation for 2014, which at roughly $580 million was nearly $170 million less than what the White House sought. 

A day before the unveiling of the detailed 2015 budget request, a NASA official at the Satellite 2014 trade show here affirmed the agency is still working with Space Systems/Loral to get the experimental laser communications payload — which is being built at Goddard — launched around 2017.

As was the case when NASA signed its contract with Space Systems/Loral, “we don’t know who the operator [of the host satellite] is going to be yet,” James Schier, chief architect for space communications and navigation at NASA headquarters, said during a March 10 panel discussion.

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration payload is designed to test communication in extremely high-frequency optical wavelengths — which offer faster upload and download rates than satellite industry-standard radio frequencies — between geostationary orbit and the ground. 

Flying the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration is important not only to prove that the Goddard-built optical communications suite works as intended, but also because the idea of hosting laser communication terminals aboard geostationary satellites not owned or operated by NASA is something the agency is considering as a follow-on for its venerable Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system. 

According to Schier, NASA is in the middle of studying whether the data relay capabilities packed onto a single TDRS satellite could be disaggregated into a series of smaller spacecraft, or hosted payloads “similar to [the one] that is going to fly on the Loral bird in 2017.”

Whatever path NASA chooses, “there is a management intention to put laser capabilities as part of the successor capability to the third generation of TDRS,” Schier said.

NASA has used TDRS satellites for more than 30 years to keep Earth-orbiting spacecraft in contact with the ground. The newest satellite in the eight-spacecraft constellation, TDRS-L, was launched in January and is one of three third-generation TDRS satellites to be built for NASA by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., under a fixed-price contract signed in 2007. 

Boeing’s base contract was for TDRS-K and TDRS-L, with an option for TDRS-M and TDRS-N. NASA picked up the TDRS-M option in 2011 for $289 million, but passed on the TDRS-N option, agency spokesman Dewayne Washington confirmed March 12. 

Three third-generation TDRS satellites are all NASA needs “to maintain Space Network communications services to customer missions into the 2020s,” when the constellation will next need replenishing, according to the NASA budget justification. 

TDRS-M is now in production and is expected to be finished by June 2015, when it will be put in storage until NASA can procure a launch vehicle, according to the 2015 budget justification. The TDRS-K and -L satellites launched on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets, but NASA appears to be leaving the door open for a competing launch provider to loft TDRS-M.

“TDRS-M will be stored at the contractor’s facility until funding is available to purchase a launch vehicle,” the 2015 budget justification reads. “Depending on the launch vehicle selected, changes may be required to integrate the satellite with the vehicle and prepare it for launch.”

Meanwhile, NASA is still planning incremental steps in its laser technology demonstrations for 2015, including demonstrating in-space laser communications between two cubesats, according to the budget justification. 

Similarly, the next Discovery-class planetary science mission, competition for which begins this year, could be required to fly a NASA-furnished laser communications terminal. 

NASA already has a long-distance laser communications relay demonstration under its belt. In 2013, NASA relayed data from lunar orbit to Earth using an optical communications payload hosted aboard the agency’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer spacecraft. In that test, the agency achieved virtually error-free upload rates of 20 megabits a second, and download rates of 311 megabits a second, Schier said March 10.


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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...