NASA selects six companies to demonstrate commercial successors to TDRS

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PITTSBURGH — Six companies, including both traditional satellite operators and constellation developers, have won NASA awards to demonstrate services that could ultimately replace the agency’s existing fleet of communications satellites.

NASA announced April 20 the Communications Services Project (CSP) awards, totaling $278.5 million, to test how commercial satellites in both low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit could support missions that currently use the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation of NASA-owned spacecraft that have provided service since the 1980s.

Two of the winners, Amazon’s Kuiper Government Solutions and SpaceX, won $67 million and $69.95 million respectively to demonstrate how their LEO constellations, using optical links, can provide communications services for satellites and launches. Inmarsat Government Inc. and Viasat won $28.6 million and $53.3 million respectively to demonstrate services using GEO satellites. SES Government Solutions and Telesat U.S. Services won $28.96 million and $30.65 million respectively to demonstrate services using a mix of GEO satellites and constellations in LEO and medium Earth orbits.

The awards are in the form of Space Act Agreements with the companies matching or exceeding the awards with their own funds. NASA estimated the total investment to be $1.5 billion over five years in this demonstration phase of the program.

The goal of CSP is to demonstrate services that NASA could later procure as it seeks to gradually phase out the use of TDRS satellites. “We’ll be demonstrating the end-to-end capability that we would ultimately be able to go out and procure for NASA missions,” Eli Naffah, CSP project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said in an interview during the Satellite 2022 conference in March.

The CSP awards cover services using a wide range of frequencies, including C-, L- and Ka-band, and are meant to support new missions rather than current ones designed for working with TDRS satellites on frequencies set aside for space research.

“Right now we’re not looking for backward compatibility,” Naffah said. “We’re figuring that existing missions that are utilizing TDRS capability will continue to utilize TDRS for their life. What we’re looking at here is future missions.”

One issue will be the use of those commercial frequencies for space-to-space communications. Existing spectrum bands for fixed and mobile satellite services don’t include allocations for space-to-space communications, something that may be addressed at future World Radiocommunication Conferences. “Getting those space-to-space allocations is going to be key to being able to offer an operational service to spacecraft,” he said.

The awards will test not just technical feasibility but also approaches for buying services. “While we’re doing the demonstrations, we’re going to be looking at what that acquisition strategy is and what the transition plan is,” he said. The agency’s goal is to have commercial services in operation by 2030 as the TDRS fleet is gradually decommissioned.

CSP is following approaches of previous NASA commercial services programs, such as commercial cargo and crew, adopting approaches like the use of funded Space Act Agreements. “All those lessons learned are rolled into what we’re trying to do for CSP and I think it’s really paying off for us,” he said. “I think that will translate very well for the very mature market of satcom.”