Since the 1980s, NASA has relied on a network of geostationary satellites for space communications in near Earth orbit. The incumbent Space Network created by NASA decades ago for the Space Shuttle program has met the agency’s space relay services needs for a long time. As recently as 20 years ago, such NASA investment was critical because the commercial sector had yet to develop the infrastructure to support NASA’s work.
That is no longer the case. Private sector innovation in near-Earth space is accelerating quickly and dramatically. Over the last two decades, industry has invested heavily in developing satcom infrastructure because of strong market demands for things like cellular and streaming services. With industry efforts now outpacing what government could ever do, we must look to leverage that investment for NASA’s and other customers’ purposes. This approach is already used to support crew and cargo going to the International Space Station. Now it’s time to take a further step toward the next evolution of communication services.
A win-win for public-private partnership
The Communications Services Project (CSP) is pioneering the future of NASA’s near-Earth space communications, evaluating the feasibility of commercial satcom networks to reliably support future NASA missions as the Space Network approaches decommissioning in the coming years.
That will include a wide range of near-Earth needs like launch support, early operations, low and high data rate routine missions, terrestrial support and contingency services. Commercial satcom capabilities will provide NASA with cost-saving access to continual industry innovation for its missions, freeing more agency resources to focus on science and exploration.
Importantly, this engagement will foster a new class of commercial satcom services that will bolster American industry, spur economic growth, and promote a diverse market worldwide. Up until now, content in the satcom industry has been typically generated on the ground and then sent to a satellite relay for broadcast. Those same relays may soon be used to serve increasing content originating in space. That creates demand for new two-way data transfer models that can accommodate the space-based user.
This requires a somewhat different model than how the industry currently operates, but the infrastructure is there and can be adapted. With NASA as one of a growing set of customers that could purchase such services, a new market will develop while costs for everyone will come down.
Growing options, and markets, for space communications
To pursue this future, we are partnering with leading industry providers to demonstrate support capabilities that meet NASA’s needs. Planning for the eventual acquisition of commercial services will be conducted during the demonstration period and incorporate what we learn. Throughout this time, CSP, which is formulated under the Space Communication and Navigation division of NASA, will work with our Industry Partners and missions to ensure that the quality of service, performance and reliability of satcom service that our missions need and deserve will be available as government legacy assets are retired. We will tackle the inevitable technical challenges that come with something of this magnitude. At the same time, we must acknowledge and embrace the reality that industry brings innovation in technical capabilities and methods. There is opportunity in that innovation — for NASA and other consumers of satcom services that will make use of this new class of service for spacecraft, communications and navigation needs.
By embracing this opportunity, satcom providers stand to align with and support NASA and the rapidly growing space industry from here at the start by incorporating some of the most exciting developments of our time. Utilizing NASA as a safe foundation for demonstrating and broadening service offerings for this nascent market will help satcom innovators instill their own solutions into future space communications infrastructure.
Of course, this is a major undertaking, but CSP is ready to lead. As NASA initiatives have repeatedly done — such as opening the initial spectrum for TV, satellite radio, spot beam, and cell phone communications — CSP will help encourage innovations derived from the capabilities developed for space-based customers. Seeding a new kind of satcom market, we will benefit NASA, industry and taxpayers, increasing jobs and economic opportunity while enabling space missions for the long term. We are ready, and we are confident industry is ready too.
Eli Naffah is the CSP program manager at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.