NASA eyes future space communications upgrades through commercial partnership

With high-capacity satellites connected by space relays, Viasat is part of the plan to commercialize NASA’s communications

NASA TDRS satellite is readied for launch in 2018

The last of the NASA TDRS satellites is encapsulated prior to launch in August, 2017. Viasat is among several satellite providers that will be working to replace the capabilities of the TDRS constellation.


Nearly four decades ago, NASA launched the first of its TDRS satellites. It was 1983, the space shuttle Challenger was launching, and the agency created the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system to provide communications for this mission and others to follow.

Along with the shuttle missions, the TDRS constellation has provided communication for the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and a number of NASA’s Earth-observation satellites. Over the past 40 years, NASA has launched 13 of these satellites, deploying them in geostationary orbit (GEO) over the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.

Since that first TDRS satellite went up, several more generations have followed — with the last of the 13 launched in 2017. Satellites in these orbits have a typical lifetime of 15-20 years, and NASA has already retired a number of earlier ones.

As the fleet aged, NASA — like other government agencies — weighed the cost of continuing to build, launch, and manage its own satellites versus turning to private industry. Recently, they concluded that the latter makes a lot more sense. In April, Viasat was among several companies selected to help with the TDRS successor: the Communications Services Project (CSP). This is meant to support near-Earth space missions — typically in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Viasat supports the idea that commercial innovation can meet government needs where it makes economic sense, often executing in a more effective and time efficient manner.

“I think once NASA makes the move — much like they’ve done with commercial crew and commercial cargo — they’re going to be saving money and getting better capabilities. So, it’s really a good move for NASA and for the American taxpayer, too.”
Nathan Welborne

“It’s really very well in alignment with some of the ideas that we’ve advocated for a long time on the government side,” said Nathan Welborne, business development for Viasat’s Resilient Space Missions business area. “When you look at the capabilities of TDRS now and you look at what they can get with commercial systems today, with a moderate investment like they’re putting in with CSP, the capabilities are just light years better.”

During a panel discussion at the Space Innovation Summit — part of the America’s Future Series — in July, Elias Naffah, CSP project manager at NASA, said it’s in line with an evolution already underway.

“We started with commercial cargo, which we now buy as a commercial service to the International Space Station,” Naffah said. “And the success that we’re now having with being able to finally fly NASA astronauts and not using Russia as a vehicle to get there. SATCOM (satellite communications) is the next step.”

Also speaking on the panel, Mike Maughan, vice president of Resilient Space Missions for Government Systems at Viasat, said a 2017 white paper created by the company pointed to the potential success of this kind of arrangement with NASA.

“The reason we wrote that was not because there was inaction on the government side, it was because we saw the tremendous capability that high-capacity satellites and commercial investments could offer to NASA and other agencies,” Maughan said.

He pointed out that, along with the upcoming ViaSat-3 constellation expected to create a global network, Viasat has a lot of other relevant experience.

“It stems a lot out of some of Viasat’s pioneering work in mobility communication solutions,” he said. “In-flight connectivity is something that Viasat has worked on quite a bit for decades and is providing trailblazing services. So if you think about an aircraft traveling and you’ve got satellite connectivity to it, you could see providing space mobility services and in-orbit mobility as a natural extension. It’s not that far of a leap to think about doing that.”

Space relays

To make this all happen, Viasat is working on space relay capability that can significantly improve the ability to download data from anywhere on or above the Earth. This capability builds on the success of Viasat’s Real-Time Earth (RTE) network — a group of ground antennas located in strategic positions around the world. RTE — a Ground Segment as a Service (GSaaS) network — helps reduce the cost to satellite operators who don’t want to build and operate a costly network of their own. With more antennas in place, these operators don’t have to wait minutes or even hours for their satellite to fly over a particular ground station. That reduction in wait time is critical for applications that require immediate data.

RTE has already gained a number of customers who rely on the service to ensure the fast transfer of data from their satellites — typically engaged in Earth-observation activities in low-Earth orbit. The space relay component will potentially be able to relay data through the planned ViaSat-3 high-capacity network to provide near-global coverage and enable satellite-to-satellite connections to deliver data almost instantly. RTE customers who don’t require such speedy delivery can remain on the satellite-to-ground connection that exists today.

It’s a seemingly ideal tech scenario for the CSP project.

“I think once NASA makes the move — much like they’ve done with commercial crew and commercial cargo — they’re going to be saving money and getting better capabilities,” Welborne said. “So, it’s really a good move for NASA and for the American taxpayer, too.”

In addition to NASA, Welborne said the Viasat system also has enormous potential for other government projects — particularly with the Department of Defense.

“It can help existing DoD relay systems and provide an additional layer of commercial resilience on top of the government-owned system,” he said.

Another potentially large market is with the many companies operating Earth-observation satellites. It’s no secret that interest in small LEO satellites has increased tremendously in recent years — driven in large part by reductions in the cost to launch them. Some are as small as toasters, some as big as cars, but they all have one thing in common: the need for a reliable downlink to get data in use as soon as possible.

The planned global relay capability with ViaSat-3 is key. Whether it’s the military needing to observe a battlespace in real time or an insurance company monitoring a disaster zone, space relay is a highly attractive way to significantly reduce wait time.

Think of a LEO satellite only a few hundred miles above the earth: It can only “see” a small portion of the Earth’s surface, and it may need to travel thousands of miles to get within range of its dedicated ground station. But if it could, instead, transmit to a satellite in geostationary orbit immediately, with that signal and its accompanying data then relayed instantly, it’s a huge advantage.

“A lot of the demand for this type of thing is actually coming from the U.S. government, which is looking for reduced latency for mission-critical data,” Welborne said.

A potential cure for congestion

Yet another expected advantage of the Viasat network will be its ability to handle a lot more data at once. Each ViaSat-3 satellite is designed to have 1 Terabyte/s capacity — a huge leap from any other satellites currently in orbit.

The fact is that there are only a few places in the world where a lot of imagery is being collected, and with more satellites trying to download more data, the limited number of ground stations is filling up fast. Interestingly enough, one “hot spot” is at the poles, which are strategically important for ground station placement. Since the remoteness and weather make it much more difficult to build additional ground stations, a robust network with space relays can make a big difference.

“You just can’t build enough satellite ground stations to handle all that traffic,” Welborne said. “If the ViaSat-3 network is in place as planned, you shouldn’t have to worry about those congestion issues; we won’t be using the same ground stations as everyone else. You don’t have to wait until you fly over Svalbard or Ghana or wherever.”

Welborne notes that the Viasat network uses state-of-the art cybersecurity technology — something we’ve had in place and continually improved upon as an internet service provider and military contractor. So, satellite operators using the network for data downlinks will have a leg up on security for their information.

And, as Maughan pointed out, there’s yet another upside to enabling these hybrid, multi-orbit networks.

“If you put a LEO-GEO space terminal in an RF (radio frequency) link to augment other transport options like optical, that would enhance reliability and resiliency tremendously,” he said. “It gives you another option to route data over. I think these hybrid adaptive networks … really enable that for any mission across applications.”

Next steps

NASA plans to keep the TDRS system in place through the end of the decade, with decommissioning starting in 2030. NASA sees the CSP program involving multiple commercial partners, but equally important is the agency’s desire that the technology not be limited to its own missions. As NASA states on its CSP website:

CSP will help foster a new class of commercial SATCOM services to address that demand. These services and new service models can be used by other government agencies and even commercial space flight companies to support their own mission requirements. That will bolster industry while enabling support for NASA’s near-Earth space missions for the long term.

“NASA is investing in this kind of like a venture capital fund, but without an ownership position,” Welborne said. “They’re truly leading an investment in the U.S. space industry to bring these services to market. And NASA’s been very clear that they don’t want to be the only customer of any system that launches or goes operational. They want to be one of many customers.”

Viasat was already planning to create this type of system anyway, he said, so it was easy to show NASA that the market exists well beyond its own missions.

“This is another business that could be evolved from that ViaSat-3 network that, probably when we first envisioned that network, we weren’t necessarily targeting space mobility as one of the number-one uses,” Maughan said.

From NASA’s point of view, Naffah compared the agency’s involvement to that of an investor.

“We’re hoping that once a market is established and services are starting to be provided, I think industry will get together and we’re going to encourage and facilitate that to develop standards that they will benefit from and that will increase the market share,” Naffah said. “And I think that’s going to be the key for us for a resilient capability.”

According to Maughan, the space relay capability Viasat plans to demonstrate for NASA represents something of a paradigm shift in performance and scalability.

“Because we plan to have that high-capacity satellite … it enables more flexibility in terms of bandwidth,” he said. “It’s also got the scalability element. So no longer would we be talking about single-digit space vehicles that you’re going to be able to provide connectivity solutions to. You could provide connectivity up to hundreds or maybe even thousands of space vehicles at any time on some of these systems on demand.”

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