Tag Archives: TDRS

NASA to use private enterprise for space communications

Capitalism in space: NASA is now in the process of shifting from building its own communications satellites to communicate with ISS as well as many other Earth-orbiting NASA satellites to buying those services from the private sector, much as the agency has done with is cargo and crew ferrying service to the station.

This involves ground stations as well as upgrading its fleet of geosynchronous NASA-built TDRS satellites.

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.

The original TDRS constellation of satellites, launched from 1983 to 1995, were actually built for a reasonable cost. At the time NASA did not try to put every bell and whistle on them, but focused instead on their basic mission and getting it launched for a reasonable cost. The management at NASA today almost certainly could not do this. Getting new satellites from competitive private companies will therefore save NASA money, and get the job done faster.

NASA considering purchase of communications services

Capitalism in space: Rather than build its own communications satellites, as it has done in the past, NASA is now considering purchasing these services from private communications satellite companies.

NASA had been studying a next-generation communications system that would ultimately replace the current generation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) spacecraft in Earth orbit, as well as support missions beyond Earth orbit. That included the possibility of partnerships with the private sector.

“Past networks have been expensive to operate and maintain because they were designed to only serve government customers, which has limited their ability to leverage commercial partnerships,” the agency said in its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal released in February. “The next generation project will engage with commercial industry through mechanisms such as services contracts, hosted payloads, and other public-private-partnerships to allow multiple commercial entities to partner with the Government in order to significantly reduce and eventually eliminate reliance on NASA or NASA contractor run ground systems.”

In a paper presented last year by several NASA officials at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, the agency said working with both commercial and international partners would be among the elements of its next-generation architecture. “Using open, commercial, and international standards will enable the use of commercial services by specifying required performance and interfaces without specifying provider-specific capabilities,” the paper stated. “Commercial entities will compete based on price, quality, timeliness, support and other factors that maintain a competitive environment.”

That desire to work with the commercial sector, along with harnessing new technologies like optical communications, was a reason cited by NASA a year ago for not exercising an option for an additional TDRS satellite under a contract NASA awarded to Boeing in 2007. The last satellite built under that contract, TDRS-M, launched in August 2017.

Using commercial communications satellites makes perfect sense. It will be faster, provide more redundancy, and will save the taxpayer a lot of money.

NASA communications satellite damaged during launch prep

A NASA TDRS communications satellite, scheduled for a August 3 launch on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, was damaged on July 14 while it was undergoing final preparations for launch.

Though the issue apparently involves one of the satellite’s main antennas, it is unclear what happened exactly or how extensive the damage was. Furthermore, this article about the incident notes that an earlier incident had also occurred during shipping.

It is understood this latest incident is not related to a ‘close call’ that NASA was investigating earlier in the flow. That incident involved the spacecraft’s shipping container – containing environmental instrumentation – which slid a couple of feet on the trailer it was being winched on to.

If I was a customer who might want to buy the launch services of ULA, I would demand detailed information about why these incidents happened, including what measures are being taken to prevent them from occurring again.