PARIS — NASA is investing $230 million in an experiment to test laser optical communications between a geostationary-orbiting satellite and a NASA ground terminal in the United States in an unusual hosted-payload contract with satellite builder Space Systems/Loral (SS/L), NASA and SS/L said.
The 175-kilogram Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) terminal, now in development at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will be placed aboard a yet-unselected commercial telecommunications satellite that Palo Alto, Calif.-based SS/L hopes to have ready for launch as soon as 2016.
The LCRD terminal would permit high-speed communication of data between the satellite and a NASA-developed ground terminal to be located in the western United States, meaning that whatever commercial satellite SS/L finds for the experiment will need to have a look angle over the United States. NASA has said it is tentatively planning LCRD ground stations in Hawaii and Southern California, taking advantage of work being done for NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission to lunar orbit scheduled for 2013.
A supplemental LADEE payload will test laser links between lunar orbit and Earth. The LADEE laser terminal is being built by MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center in Lexington, Mass.
LCRD will be NASA’s first hosted-payload arrangement. Unlike most hosted-payload contracts, in which a satellite owner negotiates with the owner of the hosted payload, NASA has contracted with SS/L to manage the entire process, meaning SS/L will find a suitable commercial customer and negotiate contract terms with the customer within a NASA-fixed budget that is paid to SS/L, according to Michael Weiss, LCRD project manager at Goddard Space Flight Center.
That will mean SS/L will be responsible for compensating the satellite owner for the on-board power — 600 watts — that the laser terminal requires, and for a share of the launch costs.
In an April 12 interview, Weiss said NASA would like to operate the LCRD for two years. He said NASA received several bids for the contract before settling on the SS/L bid.
Given the normal two- to three-year cycle of satellite production, it is likely that the satellite has not yet been contracted. In a statement, SS/L said that the optical module and the ground stations that will communicate with it are still in development, and that SS/L “will work with its commercial customers to identify an appropriate host satellite for the demonstration.”
In addition to being the most successful supplier of commercial telecommunications satellites in recent years among U.S. builders, SS/L has specialized in large, high-power spacecraft — 20 kilowatts of on-board power is not uncommon — that presumably would find it easier to accommodate the LCRD than a smaller or lower-power spacecraft.
Most commercial telecommunications satellites are launched aboard European or Russian rockets, a market reality that could pose difficulties for NASA if it views hosted payloads as a promising new avenue to test technology without paying for an entire satellite and launch. Current U.S. government policy prohibits the use of a non-U.S. vehicle to launch U.S. government hardware if a U.S. alternative is available, unless the mission receives a specific waiver.
But Weiss said the LCRD mission may not need to seek a waiver. He said the agency is formulating a hosted-payload policy that reflects the new hosted-payload opportunities for which NASA is not the host agency.
The use of laser terminals for satellite communications — both between satellites in orbit and between satellites and ground terminals — has been the focus of much investment in Europe, but less so in the United States.
The French and German governments have sponsored laser communications terminals to fly aboard a geostationary-orbiting data-relay satellite that communicated with low-orbiting Earth observation spacecraft carrying similar terminals. More recently, Germany’s Tesat Spacecom of Backnang, Germany, has sold laser terminals for use by the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and the 27-nation European Union as part of their Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program.
ESA has contracted with Astrium Services of Europe to manage a data-relay service that will use laser terminals on two geostationary-orbiting satellites to speed Earth observation data delivery to ground users from low-orbiting GMES satellites.
Tesat had hoped that a large U.S. government demand for laser terminals would follow the successful use of laser terminals to exchange data between the German government’s TerraSAR-X radar Earth observation satellite and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Near Field Infrared Experiment, or NFIRE, missile-warning satellite. TerraSAR-X and NFIRE, each equipped with a Tesat-built laser communications terminal, exchanged reproducible data at speeds of 5.5 gigabits per second for several months in 2008 following a bilateral U.S.-German government agreement, according to Tesat.
Despite a Tesat agreement with Fairfax, Va.-based General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems to promote the Tesat technology in the United States, the U.S. government demand has not materialized, and Tesat has focused on European government programs.
Laser communications have the advantage of operating in a section of the electromagnetic spectrum whose frequencies are not regulated by the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations affiliate.