Comsat Optimistic About Testbed Contract

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Though NASA recently awarded a contract to Comsat Laboratories to start work on a space communications testbed, it is unclear whether the contract is in danger of being axed as NASA re-evaluates its technology investments.

Comsat, a Clarksburg, Md.-based division of ViaSat Inc., announced the contract July 5. The company will receive $2.3 million over the next year to get started on the testbed, which will test out new communications technology to be used in deep space exploration, such as Mars and Moon missions. Also participating in the effort will be Glenn Research Center in Cleveland; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; and Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va. Comsat will coordinate the work by these NASA centers, which will receive a combined total of $1.4 million for the project.

If NASA elects to carry the testbed project through to completion, the work would be worth more than $29.22 million, according to Prakash Chitre, vice president and general manager of Comsat Laboratories.

The contract announcement came after NASA Administrator Mike Griffin suspended more than $1 billion worth of technology projects in May, saying the agency plans to concentrate its spending on projects that will directly advance the goals of its Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

Comsat is confident its project falls in this category.

“Our view is that space communications is a very critical element for missions to the Moon and Mars, and we believe that view is shared by the NASA folk,” Chitre said in an interview.

But NASA spokesman Michael Braukus would not confirm the Comsat contract is safe.

“I think it’s too early to tell,” Braukus said, adding that NASA may re-examine existing contracts. “The ones which already have been eliminated have been eliminated, but we’ll have to see if there’s a need for a second round,” Braukus said.

Comsat has chosen to remain optimistic. Under the contract, the company will be responsible for developing key portions of the ground-based test bed, including network control pieces and Crew Exploration Vehicle simulation software, Chitre said.

The purpose of the contract is to identify specific gaps in NASA’s communications technology. One example, Chitre said, is a problem with Internet protocols. As they exist now, Internet protocols would produce significant delays when communicating with astronauts on Mars or the Moon. Chitre said improvements in communications will significantly cut down on the risks involved with deep space missions.

The testbed will help determine if existing technology can be modified to produce better results in a deep space environment, Chitre said. The effort also will examine new applications in areas such as voice and video, he said.

“It’s a very tough environment for communications,” Chitre said. “In deep space, you often experience long delays, and with all kinds of orbits going around, you’re not getting connections all the time.”

Chitre surmised that Comsat was chosen for the contract in part because of its previous experience working closely with different NASA centers. As the lead contractor on the effort , Comsat will be responsible for coordinating with the participating NASA centers and integrating their technology into the testbed.

Each center will produce different segments of the testbed. For example, Chitre said, Goddard will integrate the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System into the simulations; the Jet Propulsion Lab will develop prototype radios that lunar rovers would use to communicate with a Lunar Orbiter, and Glenn will experiment with ways to link a Lunar Orbiter to the Earth.

Chitre said Comsat will seek to have the contract renewed after this year.

The Comsat contract falls under NASA’s Technology Maturation Program, which specifically is targeting communications for space exploration to areas such as the Moon and Mars. If the project moves beyond its initial phase, it will test not only communications technology, but various mission operation scenarios as well, according to Comsat.