Editorial: The Right Approach for the Times

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Anyone still questioning whether the idea of placing dedicated government payloads aboard commercial spacecraft is gaining momentum need look no further than NASA’s inaugural round of in-space technology demonstration missions.

Two of the three crosscutting technologies NASA selected Aug. 22 for near-term flight opportunities will fly as hosted payloads on communications satellites planned for launch in the next several years. The third, while not technically a hosted payload, will fly into space as a secondary passenger on a commercial launch vehicle. This pennywise approach, co-funded by industry and government partners who plan on using the technologies on future missions, will limit NASA’s total investment in the experiments to a reasonably affordable $175 million.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory-led project that aims to demonstrate a miniaturized mercury-ion atomic clock 10 times more accurate than today’s systems, is slated to fly onboard an Iridium satellite and use GPS signals to confirm its on-orbit performance.

The Laser Communications Relay demonstration mission, a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center-led project, will hitch a ride aboard an as-yet-unidentified communications satellite. One candidate is NASA’s next-generation Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS, program. While not strictly commercial, the TDRS-K and TDRS-L satellites are being built under a fixed-price contract. From a subleased geosynchronous perch some 36,000 kilometers above the equator, the laser system will demonstrate the ability to communicate with ground stations and other orbiting satellites at data rates up to 100 times higher than today’s radiofrequency-based systems.

Finally, NASA will work with L’Garde — a 40-year-old California company specializing in inflatable space structures — and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on a mission to deploy and operate a solar sail seven times larger than any  flown to date. NOAA is interested in solar sails for their potential to host advanced space weather warning systems. NASA sees the potential in solar sails for deep space exploration, while space entrepreneurs see a technology that could be applied to the economical removal of space debris.

If there’s a silver lining to the budgetary cloud hanging over NASA, it’s the additional incentive it gives the agency to embrace innovative ways of doing business. This first round of in-space technology demos is a promising early example of the creativity that is called for under the circumstances.