The US space agency intends to concentrate on science and exploration and to delegate all low-Earth orbit functions to commercial entities.
SpaceX is one of several businesses vying to replace NASA’s ageing space telecommunications infrastructure, which has connected the International Space Station to Earth for decades.
For years, NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation served as the primary link between the International Space Station and Earth, providing astronauts with a constant connection to ground control as well as the ability to communicate with the public and stay in touch with family and friends.
The American space agency, on the other hand, intends to deactivate the six aged satellites within the next decade and outsource their operations to commercial firms. This month, NASA established collaborations with six commercial satellite operators, including SpaceX, the United Kingdom’s Inmarsat, the United States’ Viasat, and Switzerland’s SES, to demonstrate how they could meet NASA’s future space communication demands.
“We have no plans to launch any further TDRS satellites in the future,” Eli Naffah, manager of NASA’s Commercial Services Project, told Space.com. “The intention is to enable the constellation to essentially [die]. We will have some lessened capability later this decade, and the plan is for [commercial enterprises] to develop a new method of providing communication services to our missions. ”
Since the 1980s, when the constellation was first built to support space shuttle flights, three generations of TDRS satellites have been launched. The third-generation satellites were launched in 2017.
TDRS’s mission is to maintain a continuous link between spacecraft orbiting the earth and NASA’s ground centres. In addition to the International Space Station, TDRS also assists the Hubble Space Telescope and other scientific missions.
To ensure continuous coverage, the constellation will require at least three geostationary satellites distributed across the Earth. Geostationary satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometres) with an orbital period that corresponds to the Earth’s rotation. As a result, these satellites appear to be hanging in mid-air above a fixed location on the Earth.
TDRS now has six active satellites. However, the three second-generation spacecraft are already more than two decades old and nearing the end of their useful lives.
“In the 1980s, when we established TDRS, there was virtually no commercial capability to deliver this service,” Naffah explained. However, the industry’s investment in this field has considerably exceeded NASA’s. There is a substantial amount of infrastructure available to provide these types of services to spacecraft, both on the ground and in orbit.
Six businesses will create demonstrator projects over the next three years to demonstrate their telecommunication satellites’ ability to interface with orbiting platforms. This, Naffah stated, may cause some technical difficulties. The majority of commercial communications satellites communicate with fixed ground-based antennas or mobile terminals aboard ships or aircraft travelling at far slower speeds than orbiting satellites. While commercial aircraft fly at speeds ranging from 460 to 575 mph (740-930 kph), the space station orbits the Earth at around 17,500 mph (28,000 kph).
NASA will invest $278 million in the initiative over the next five years, with business partners investing approximately $1.5 billion.
Hopefully, we can achieve some cost savings in the procurement of commercial services, exit the business of network operation, and devote more resources to science and exploration, Naffah added.
This work is part of NASA’s long-term goal of commercialising the majority of low-Earth orbit operations. The space agency has already contracted with Northrop Grumman and SpaceX for cargo and crew transportation services, with Boeing expected to join the list later this year.
NASA has stated that the International Space Station will be decommissioned in 2030 and that any future human presence in low Earth orbit — including visits by NASA astronauts — will be maintained entirely by commercial operators.