• NASA is seeking to replace its NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) communications system, shown in a NASA illustration. The administration is pursuing two demonstrations with six commercial satellite communication providers to start to examine how the industry can support future near-Earth communication mission requirements. Credit: NASA
     NASA is seeking to replace its NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) communications system, shown in a NASA illustration. The administration is pursuing two demonstrations with six commercial satellite communication providers to start to examine how the industry can support future near-Earth communication mission requirements. Credit: NASA

NASA's SATCOM Quandary

April 21, 2022
By Kimberly Underwood
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The space administration is attempting to inform rules for space-based communication, but the world regulating body has the final say.


Building on the success of private industry cargo, launch and commercial crew services, NASA is betting on the commercial satellite industry to meet its future communication needs. It is turning to a service model for fixed satellite services in low-Earth orbit, to support its various missions, and later on, is planning on using mobile satellite services. What stands in the administration’s way, however, is a lengthy regulatory hurdle. NASA must obtain spectrum regulatory recognition for satellite-to-satellite operations from the world’s governing body, the World Radio Conference, which only meets every four years.

NASA hopes to be able to replace its space-to-ground Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, known as TDRSS, which provides data relay from space stations in low-Earth orbit to TDRSS ground stations. The administration must achieve approval for a satellite-to-satellite construct from the World Radio Conference (WRC) to be able to depend on such advanced commercial offerings. And correspondingly, companies would not have much of a business case to offer such services, without this “protected status” declaration from the WRC that enables the companies to avoid having to operate on a less dependable noninterference basis. 

“The big challenge for us is going to be the regulatory challenge,” says Eli Naffah, project manager, Communications Services Project (CSP), NASA. “That’s the process we have to go through because if you don’t have a treaty that says you can use it globally for that purpose on a noninterference basis, it’s not going to work because there will be interference. And of course, if you are a company in the fixed satellite service (FSS) industry, you’re concerned that if you are doing space-to-space [relays] it could interfere with your existing business base terrestrially.”  

The WRC, which is held by the United Nations International Telecommunications Union, is next conducting its treaty-level negotiations in 2023. Within the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration play a role in developing agenda items for the WRC negotiations, as does industry, including through the Mobile Satellite Users Association, which met in March in Washington, D.C., to discuss industry input for WRC 23 and WRC 27.  

Naffah spoke at the Mobile Satellite Users Association meeting and in an interview with SIGNAL.

For WRC 23, the United States will negotiate so-called Agenda Item 1.17 regarding fixed satellite-to-satellite operations in frequency bands 11.7-12.7 gigahertz (GHz); 18.1-18.6 GHz, 18.8-20.2 GHz and 27.5-30 GHZ, to obtain a corresponding intersatellite service allocation. In 2019, the WRC decided not to discuss the related mobile-satellite service, or MSS, allocation, and instead slated it for possible consideration in 2027. Parties at the WRC 23 meeting will decide whether or not to include discussion for MSS at WRC 27 under Agenda Item 2.8, for mobile operations in frequency bands 1 525-1 544 megahertz (MHz); 1 545-1 559 MHz; 1 610-1 645.5 MHz; 1 646.5-1 660.5 MHz and 2 483.5-2 500 MHz amongst geostationary and non-geostationary satellites. 

“We have an agenda item at the WRC 23 called 1.17, which deals with using fixed satellite service spectrum for space-to-space communications,” Naffah explains. “That’s important if we want to leverage existing infrastructure structure that is out there for FSS. We’re working actively with partners in industry and in other nations to try to bring that to fruition so that we can get an allocation and that would then enable the business case. For WRC 27 we are trying to get an agenda item for the mobile satellite era. We’re working those and it takes a long time. There’s the potential for some optical communications, and that will help, so we are not banking on any one solution.”

NASA is looking for industry and government sector input on WRC 27 agenda item 2.8 and points companies to participate in the FCC’s WRC-23 Advisory Committee. “NASA is seeking to partner with the U.S. Mobile Satellite Service industry on development of a mutually agreeable proposal,” Naffah states. “And in the long term, NASA is seeking to partner with the industry to conduct the necessary spectrum sharing and feasibility studies toward demonstrating the feasibility of satellite-to-satellite operations in these MSS bands.” 

In the meantime, NASA is pursuing two demonstration efforts with industry as part of its CSP to start building the ecosystem and demonstrate capabilities to NASA leaders that they will need for its mission communications. One of the CSP demonstrations will tackle assured data delivery capabilities that will support NASA’s launch communications and other time-critical operations. The assured data delivery effort will support the distribution of mission data; tracking, telemetry and telecommand links; navigation, ranging and timing; and networking and security. Such capabilities would mostly be at lower data rates, but with very low latency, 24/7 access and have bidirectional data flows, Naffah explained.  

The second demonstration will examine file delivery and networking (FD&N) capabilities, to provide for the return of science data obtained in space. The FD&N demonstration will feature cloud storage and data broadcasting of telemetry and other data to a mission operations center or a remote principal investigator. “Links will typically support larger data file transmission, higher data rates, but can tolerate higher latencies, making it ideal for transport via a ‘store and forward’ or burst mode, if necessary,” Naffah said.  

Both demonstrations are tied to NASA’s various mission use cases. For each CSP effort, NASA will examine commercial satellite communication performance validation, operational approaches and possible acquisition constructs. On April 20, NASA announced the six commercial satellite communications companies it had selected for the $278.5 million demonstrations, which will run for five years.

The administration does expect the six companies to “match or exceed” NASA’s contributions during the demonstration period, with the expected total cost-share investment to be more than $1.5 billion.

“For more than a year, the agency has been evaluating the feasibility of employing commercial SATCOM [satellite communications] networks for near-Earth operations as it works to decommission its near-Earth satellite fleet,” a NASA spokesperson stated. “This approach would allow NASA to focus more time and resources on its deep space exploration and science missions.”

The CSP contracting relies on provisions of the 1958 Space Act, which had the forethought to enable commercial sector technology development to aid NASA’s missions.  

“We are following the agency’s proven approach developed through commercial cargo and commercial crew services,” said Naffah. “By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service. The flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”

NASA expects the SATCOM companies to be able to initially demonstrate opportunities to develop innovative solutions that could potentially meet NASA’s future mission requirements while supporting each company’s business model, future customers and a growing domestic commercial SATCOM market.

The selected companies include:

  • Inmarsat Government Inc. of Reston, Virginia, has been awarded $28.6 million. Inmarsat’s proposed approach demonstrates a commercial radio frequency geostationary orbiting L-band relay network for low-rate SATCOM services to spacecraft and launch vehicles for routine missions, contingency operations, launch and ascent, and early operations phase communications.  
  • Kuiper Government Solutions (KGS) LLC of Arlington, Virginia, has been awarded $67 million. Kuiper’s proposed approach demonstrates a commercial optical low-Earth orbiting relay network for high- and- low-rate SATCOM services to spacecraft in low-Earth orbit for routine missions, contingency operations, and early operations phase communications.  ​
  • SES Government Solutions of Reston, Virginia, has been awarded $28.96 million. SES’s proposed approach demonstrates commercial radio frequency geostationary orbiting C-band and medium-Earth orbiting Ka-band relay networks for high- and- low-rate SATCOM services to spacecraft in low-Earth orbit for routine missions, contingency operations, launch and ascent, and early operations phase communications. 
  • Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California, has been awarded $69.95 million. SpaceX’s proposed approach demonstrates a commercial optical low-Earth orbiting relay network for high-rate SATCOM services to spacecraft in low-Earth orbit for routine missions, contingency operations, launch and ascent, and early operations phase communications.
  • Telesat U.S. Services LLC of Arlington, Virginia, has been awarded $30.65 million. Telesat’s proposed approach demonstrates commercial radio frequency geostationary orbiting C-band and low-Earth orbiting Ka-band relay networks for high- and- low-rate communications services to spacecraft in low-Earth orbit for routine missions.
  • Viasat Incorporated of Carlsbad, California, has been awarded $53.3 million. Viasat’s proposed approach demonstrates a commercial radio frequency geostationary orbiting Ka-band relay network for high- and low-rate communications services to spacecraft in low-Earth orbit for routine launch and missions.

The administration indicated that the companies will complete technology development and in-space demonstrations by 2025, proving that their proposed solutions “will deliver robust, reliable and cost-effective mission-oriented operations, including the ability for new high-rate and high-capacity two-way communications,” the spokesperson noted.

Ultimately, NASA wants to be able to depend on commercial SATCOM to meet its primary communication needs, and as such, it “intends to seek multiple long-term contracts to acquire services for near-Earth operations by 2030, while phasing out NASA owned and operated systems.”

Naffah and his team managed the CSP at NASA Glenn in Cleveland under the direction of the Space Communications and Navigation Program, which is located at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

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