The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation of NASA-owned satellites has provided service since the 1980s. NASA is evaluating commercial proposals to replace TDRS. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA expects to make awards this spring in the next phase of its effort to transition from operating its decades-old network of communications satellites to purchasing commercial services.

The Communications Services Project (CSP) completed its first phase in 2021 by determining long-term communications needs for missions currently served by the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation of NASA-owned satellites that have provided service since the 1980s. NASA is now evaluating proposals for demonstrations of commercial services to replace TDRS.

Eli Naffah, CSP formulation manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said in an interview during the Satellite 2022 conference March 22 that the agency expected to make multiple awards this spring. He declined to detail the number and size of the awards, citing the blackout period in the ongoing procurement. 

“We’ll be looking to do those demonstrations that will kick off this year and occur over the next three to four years,” he said. “We’ll be demonstrating the end-to-end capability that we would ultimately be able to go out and procure for NASA missions.”

The awards are intended to demonstrate that commercial satellites can handle communications services currently performed through TDRS. However, those demonstrations will use different frequencies than TDRS satellites, which are 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.”

Those future missions will be designed to communicate using commercial frequencies, allowing them to work with commercial satellites. One issue, he said, is that 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.

Alternatives include optical communications that don’t have spectrum limitations and hybrid solutions that offer a mix of direct-to-Earth and space-based relay capabilities, he said. “We’re reaching out to industry and saying, ‘Based on what you can do and what you want to do, tell us what you want to invest in and we’ll invest with you and demonstrate those capabilities.’”

The CSP demonstrations are intended to do more than just technical feasibility. They will also explore the best acquisition approaches to buying such 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. Those acquisitions could begin even before the demonstrations are completed, with the goal of having services in operation by the end of the decade.

Another element of the demonstrations is to get NASA missions that have been working with TDRS for decades to get used to a commercial alternative. “I think probably the biggest obstacle we face is working with the NASA culture, making sure that we build confidence with the NASA missions that this can be done,” he said. “We’re going to need to socialize with the missions and build confidence that commercial services will be robust and reliable.”

CSP has the advantage of using lessons learned from past NASA commercialization initiatives, including the ongoing Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations (CLD) program to support the establishment of commercial space stations. That includes using multiple funded Space Act Agreements for the demonstration phase of the program, similar to what NASA did for commercial cargo and crew.

“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. “NASA has done this successfully with industry before, and we’re doing it now with CLD. I think that will translate very well for the very mature market of satcom.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...