As NASA lays the groundwork for the decommissioning of its legacy, agency-owned and operated Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS), the agency is also preparing to adopt commercial SATCOM networks and technologies for its upcoming missions.
In an effort to evaluate and begin tapping into the accelerated innovation coming out of the COMSATCOM industry, NASA has created the Communications Services Project (CSP), an agency initiative that seeks to harness commercial industry’s advances in order to, “…ensure NASA missions have the reliable, secure and continual space communications on which their long-term operations depend.”
NASA recently announced that SES Space and Defense, in partnership with Planet Labs (Planet), will be awarded a Funded Space Act Agreement to support the development and demonstration of near-Earth space relay communication services in support of the agency’s future mission needs.
To learn more about the CSP, why SES Space and Defense was chosen to support the project, as well as how the company’s O3b mPOWER satellite constellation will deliver near-Earth comms capabilities to NASA, the Government Satellite Report recently sat down with Eric Gunzelman, a Senior Director at SES Space and Defense.
Here is what he had to say:
Eric Gunzelman: NASA’s Communication Services Project (CSP) is primarily focused on pioneering the future of NASA’s near-Earth space communications and evaluating the feasibility of leveraging commercial SATCOM networks to reliably support future NASA missions, particularly through space relay, also known as satellite-to-satellite communications.
NASA has recognized the growth in commercial satellite technology and the maturation of that technology to now handle communications relay through space, as a more efficient, cost-effective alternative to the purpose-built TDRSS that NASA has operated for decades.
TDRSS is a highly capable satellite that sits in Geostationary Orbit (GEO) and provides relay services to NASA science missions at Low Earth Orbit (LEO), with the highest-profile one being the relay mission from the International Space Station (ISS).
Sometimes these LEO satellites are not always in view of the ground station, but NASA investigators still need immediate access to the scientific data collected. TDRSS functions to relay that scientific data to the ground immediately even when the LEO satellite is not in view of an earth station.
For example, Johnson Space Center can communicate to astronauts who may be on the other side of the Earth, via the 24/7 direct communication TDRSS enables.
GSR: Why is NASA looking to replace TDRSS? Why is commercial satellite a viable or preferred candidate to replace TDRSS?
Eric Gunzelman: The main reason is the expense. It costs a lot of money to build your own purpose-built constellation of satellites to cover the globe. NASA believes that the commercial technology marketplace has matured enough to enable reliable space relay capabilities. As a case in point, the commercial imagery industry has matured to the point of providing high-resolution photographs that we have all seen on the national news throughout the Ukraine conflict.
NASA is providing the funding to not only help demonstrate these emerging COMSATCOM relay services, but also the “seed” money to develop the market such that NASA is one of many customers. If they can get CSP off the ground in a cost-share agreement to help create the market – but not be the sole proprietor of the service – then that will be a big win that will save the agency money over continuing to develop and launch a purpose-built TDRSS satellite system.
“O3b and SES have been operating in a mature MEO system since 2014, providing services to the U.S. government since 2016. They have delivered more than 10 gigabytes per second on 41 contracts. That experience and legacy will ensure that NASA is receiving a low-risk, high-payoff capability for space relay.” – Eric Gunzelman
GSR: Will SES Space and Defense be delivering capacity on GEO satellites only, or will it also be leveraging its Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellite constellation to deliver service to the CSP?
Eric Gunzelman: We will begin primarily with the hybrid, GEO/MEO concept. The long-term plan is to offer most of our services through MEO, due to its lower latency and higher throughput. However, we can provide services through GEO as well.
GSR: Why is the CSP so important for NASA? How has the agency’s connectivity and communications requirements changed and shifted to make connectivity in LEO so essential?
Eric Gunzelman: Most of NASA’s Earth-observing missions are in LEO because of its closer proximity to the Earth. And a lot of those scientific missions are best served if we can get the data back to the NASA Principal Investigator as soon as the event happens. This helps NASA understand the science as it happens on our planet, and enables NASA to identify any correlation with other events around the globe.
Currently, NASA science missions that operate in polar orbits sometimes need to wait up to 30 minutes to downlink their data to an earth station if they don’t have enough priority to use TDRSS.
GSR: How will delivering MEO capacity via O3b mPOWER better enable NASA missions in LEO? What will this make possible for them? What capabilities will it enable?
Eric Gunzelman: NASA has a handful of mission sets that can be serviced by relay, including launch and early orbit, as well as your standard LEO science missions. With our 50+ GEO satellites and new O3b mPOWER MEO constellation, we can service them without the need of being in view of a NASA ground station. This reduces the long-term costs for NASA, saving budgets on TDRSS procurement and ongoing operations and maintenance, and on the ground infrastructure required to support TDRSS.
“If [NASA] can get CSP off the ground in a cost-share agreement to help create the market – but not be the sole proprietor of the service – then that will be a big win that will save the agency money over continuing to develop and launch a purpose-built TDRSS satellite system.” – Eric Gunzelman
As noted earlier, NASA missions don’t always have access to TDRSS because of other mission priorities (such as manned flights/the ISS). There’s a priority structure. In addition, a market implies many vendors to choose from. So, in theory, NASA could have access to multiple providers so buying a service when they need it and only when they need it should save billions of dollars, averting the cost to build and maintain TDRSS.
In fact, NASA has been working on this effort for nearly a decade now. The Phase One studies showed that COMSATCOM technologies had advanced and matured to consider the market space. In fact, NASA has committed to Congress, as a result of their Phase One studies that they can get off of TDRSS by the early to mid-2030s, with some new missions capable of transitioning much sooner. The final TDRSS will fly out, and they will make use of their services as they can. But the current plan is to transition to commercial for new NASA missions beginning in 2026.
GSR: Why were SES Space and Defense and Planet chosen for this program? What role will SES Space and Defense play? What role will Planet play?
Eric Gunzelman: We were one of six vendors chosen by NASA — we offer the only mature non-GEO satellite system today, that being O3b constellation operating at MEO (8,062 km). This gives us a unique vantage point because we see more of the Earth at any one time than our LEO counterparts but we don’t suffer the high latencies of GEO satellites.
“Most of NASA’s Earth observing missions are in LEO…a lot of those scientific missions are best served if we can get the data back to the NASA Principal Investigator as soon as the event happens.” – Eric Gunzelman
Planet is chosen because they know how to build and launch LEO demonstration satellites with an Earth observation payload — they know how to build small efficient satellites with an earth-based mission (imaging in this case). Planet has launched nearly 200 satellites.
GSR: What is the timeline for the CSP? Is it up and working today? If not, when will it be operational?
Eric Gunzelman: It is a four-year demonstration program that will conclude with an operational service in the late-2025/early-2026 timeframe. Ideally, NASA wants to immediately transition from this demonstration program into operational service.
O3b and SES have been operating in a mature MEO system since 2014, providing services to the U.S. government since 2016. They have delivered more than 10 gigabytes per second on 41 contracts. That experience and legacy will ensure that NASA is receiving a low-risk, high-payoff capability for space relay. We are just moving the terminal from the ground to space, and bringing the connectivity along with it.