The Second TDRSS Ground Terminal, or STGT, is located in White Sands, New Mexico, and was declared operational in 1994. Credit: NASA

NASA is preparing to hand off to the private sector much of the work of communicating with spacecraft in Earth and lunar orbit.

“This is an opportunity to promote U.S. industry, potentially improve the cost of service, and allow NASA to place its energy and focus on advanced capabilities which are not yet available in the commercial market,” Badri Younes, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation, said by email.

NASA already relies on commercial and university ground stations to provide 67 percent of communications and tracking for its Near-Earth Network, which supports suborbital and orbital missions as well as rocket launches and satellite operations at Lagrange points.

“The effort to increase this percentage by the end of 2020 is already underway,” Younes said.

NASA has 10 TDRSS satellites in orbit. The oldest was launched in 1988. The youngest was launched in 2017. Credit: NASA

NASA also will turn to partners for help communicating with spacecraft in the moon-bound Artemis program.

“Additional commercial or government-owned 18-meter class antennas will be deployed to meet Artemis program needs,” Younes said. “A future Lunar relay network is being examined to support extended human presence at the Moon.”

In addition, NASA is seeking industry assistance in replacing the Space Network, which provides communications for more than 40 missions including the International Space Station through government-owned Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) and associated ground stations.

“While the TDRS System is a fine investment that the government has made, for the future we are looking at commercial alternatives,” said Ted Sobchak, NASA Space Network project manager.

NASA plans a multistep campaign to encourage development of commercial space-based relay networks before the current TDRS spacecraft reach the end of their lives.

“Based on past spacecraft performance, the newest generation of TDRS will remain operational well into the 2030s,” Younes said.

NASA’s campaign to replace the Space Network begins with information-sharing between NASA and industry, “followed by on-orbit demonstrations and finally transitioning viable services into operations,” Younes said. “The approach will allow new NASA missions to access commercially provided satellite relay services while the TDRS are slowly retired.”

By holding a competition and conducting a series of demonstrations, NASA wants to “ensure both established providers and new entrants have an opportunity to prove and offer their services,” Younes said. “The end goal is to create a competitive, multi-player, multi-network environment.”

Having a diverse group of vendors offering communications services will help NASA achieve its primary objective: “to ensure continuity of communications services to its current and future missions,” Younes said. “NASA missions can last upwards of decades, and reliance on a single commercial vendor introduces risk that may be unacceptable.”

Badri Younes, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation. Credit: NASA

The space agency plans to create “an interoperable network of networks, in which user missions might roam between several providers, akin to the current terrestrial cellular model,” Younes said. “NASA is eager to see existing and new companies rise to the technical challenge posed by satellite-relay communication services and looks forward to those services meeting NASA’s evolving mission needs.”

For now, the effort to replace the Space Network is called Communications Services Program. It may be renamed to avoid confusion with similarly named programs, said Younes, who leads the Space Communications and Navigation office at NASA Headquarters.

In its budget blueprint sent to Congress in February, NASA requested $23.4 million in 2021 for CSP, followed by $42 million in 2022, $51.2 million in 2023 and $58.9 million in both 2024 and 2025.

Initial study contracts for commercial relay networks went to some of the nation’s largest aerospace companies. NASA awarded a total of about $4 million in 2019 to eight firms to conduct five-month studies of communications networks with optical communication and radio frequency data-relay capabilities. Winners of the Space Relay Partnership and Services Study contracts were Atlas Space Operations, Boeing, Eutelsat America Corporation, General Dynamics Mission Systems, Intelsat General Communications, Maxar Technologies, Northrop Grumman and SpaceX.

Additional firms are investing in data relay networks to accommodate growing space traffic.

“With the sharp increase in spacecraft on the horizon, now more than ever we need to shift towards an always-connected, internet-of-things mindset in space,” said Brian Barnett, CEO of Solstar Space, a New Mexico startup seeking to create a “Space Wide Web.”

Solstar’s Schmitt Space Communicator, a transceiver, relays messages between spacecraft and the ground through commercial communications satellites in geostationary orbit. Solstar tested the device in April and July 2018 on board Blue Origin’s New Shepard, sending the first tweets from space.

“We’re leveraging space infrastructure in new ways and embracing new technologies to craft innovative telecom solutions that open up new operations strategies for spacecraft and payloads,” Barnett said.

An artist’s concept of a third-generation TDRS satellite built by Boeing. Credit: Boeing

A similar product is offered by Addvalue Innovation, a subsidiary of Addvalue Technologies of Singapore.

Addvalue’s Inter-satellite Data Relay System sends data through Inmarsat’s L-band constellation. Addvalue and Inmarsat have created a commercial communications network that offers satellite operators “on-demand, uninterrupted communications” with satellites in low Earth orbit, said Tan Khai Pang, Addvalue chief technology and chief operating officer.

The latest competitor to enter this market is EOS Defense Systems USA, a subsidiary of Electro Optic Systems Holdings Ltd. of Australia. Instead of relying on existing geostationary satellites for data relay, EOS plans to create a communications network with the spectrum license originally obtained by Audacy, a Silicon Valley startup that planned to send three communications-relay satellites into medium Earth orbit. Audacy closed in 2019 after failing to raise enough money.

If EOS wins approval from the Federal Communications Commission and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, it will take over Audacy’s license and assets and begin offering service from satellites in orbit by 2024, said John Berry, chairman of EOS Defense Systems and former U.S. ambassador to Australia.

This article originally appeared in the March 16, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...