NASA has chosen six businesses to showcase commercial TDRS replacements

Six firms have earned NASA funding to showcase services that could eventually replace the agency’s current fleet of communications satellites, comprising both conventional satellite operators as well as constellation developers.

NASA announced the CSP (Communications Services Project) awards on April 20 for a total of $278.5 million to assess how the commercial satellites in LEO (low Earth orbit) and GEO (geostationary orbit) could assist missions that currently rely on the NASA-owned TDRS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite) constellation, which has been in service since the 1980s.

SpaceX and Amazon’s Kuiper Government Solutions were awarded $67 million as well as $69.95 million, respectively, to show how their LEO constellations can offer communications capabilities for satellites and launches via optical links. Viasat and Inmarsat Government Inc. were awarded $28.6 million and $53.3 million, respectively, to showcase GEO satellite services. SES Government Solutions and Telesat U.S. Services each received $28.96 million and $30.65 million to showcase services employing a combination of GEO satellites as well as constellations in LEO and MEO (Medium Earth orbits).

The prizes are given in the format of Space Act Agreements, with the corporations matching or exceeding the prizes with their funds. In this showcase phase of the program, NASA estimates a total investment of $1.5 billion over 5 years.

The purpose of CSP is to showcase services that NASA Agency could purchase in the future as it moves away from TDRS satellites. In a question-and-answer session during the Satellite 2022 event in March, Eli Naffah, project manager of CSP at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said, “We’ll be showcasing the end-to-end capability that we’d eventually be able to go out and acquire for NASA missions.”

The CSP awards include a large bandwidth, including L-, C-, and Ka-band, and are intended to enable new missions rather than existing projects that are designed to work with TDRS satellites on frequencies reserved for space research.

“We’re not aiming for backward compatibility right now,” Naffah explained. “We expect existing missions that use TDRS capability to continue to do so for the rest of their lives.  We’re talking about future missions here.”

The utilization of commercial frequencies for the space-to-space communications will be one of the issues. Existing frequency bands for mobile and fixed satellite services do not comprise allotment for the space-to-space communications, which is something that the future World Radiocommunication Conferences may address. “Getting those space-to-space allocations will be critical to being able to provide an operating service to spacecraft,” he explained.

The prizes will assess not only the technical feasibility, but also the purchasing strategies. “We’ll be examining what that procurement approach is and what the road map is as we’re doing the demonstrations,” he said. As the TDRS network is gradually retired, the agency’s objective is to possess commercial services operational by 2030.