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NASA Develops Space Communications User Terminal

Image credit: nasa.gov

For almost 40 years, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has relied on its Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) system to provide near-constant communication links between the ground and satellites in low-Earth orbit. However, the infrastructure was not originally designed for interoperability between networks.

Therefore, NASA developed a new Wideband Ka-band communications terminal, which is a transceiver that operates over government and commercial Ka-band spectrum allocations. This roaming function will give spacecraft the ability to seamlessly connect to various communications networks and allow for multi-access points of services, lower latency, and lower costs.

The versatile capabilities demonstrated by the terminal bring NASA a step closer to space communications interoperability for future NASA near-Earth missions. The new terminal will support NASA’s plans to rely exclusively on commercial providers for near-Earth space communications and navigation operations by the mid-2030s and further foster an affordable and robust space commercialisation path in the United States.

This new Wideband Ka terminal prototype will allow satellites to connect with multiple space relay networks, including TDRS, enabling NASA’s transition from government to commercial space communications services. It will also allow missions to reduce risk and costs by offering competitive choices for where they get their commercial satellite service. A high Technology Readiness Level terminal capable of operating on a wide assortment of networks truly takes advantage of commercial investments in space.

NASA recently concluded a month of trailblazing tests that successfully demonstrated communications over-the-air with the Wideband Ka terminal prototype for the very first time. A groundbreaking roaming experiment was the highlight of testing, where services switched in real-time between NASA’s TDRS system and Inmarsat’s Global Xpress Satellite.

This successful demonstration provides proof of initial roaming capabilities and confidence that commercial services can one day support future space users. The Wideband Ka terminal prototype is at a sufficiently high technology readiness level that the next technology transitional phase will be to demonstrate in a space environment.

The Wideband terminal prototype will now undergo additional ground testing and demonstrations with various commercial service providers. NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program is planning a flight demonstration, currently targeted for 2025, to evaluate in-orbit roaming capabilities across multiple government and commercial networks.

According to a page, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio manages the planning, formulation, implementation, and integration of technology projects and communication system analysis capabilities supporting NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) capabilities. SCaN serves as the headquarters Program Office for all NASA’s space communications activities, including ground-based facilities and services, and is responsible for the development of space communications and navigation technology.

NASA’s requirements for access to the radio frequency spectrum began with the formation of the agency in 1958 and have evolved and grown over the decades to include a wide array of programs and applications. Spectrum Management is an agency-wide function performed by NASA Glenn Research Center that includes both domestic and international coordination and protection of spectrum used for communications and passive sensing. This function involves the development and execution of spectrum policy and relevant analysis functions.

The technology projects include:

  • Cognitive Communications: Autonomy and resiliency techniques applicable to space communication links, networks, and provider scheduling
  • HDTN High: rate delay- and disruption-tolerant networking capabilities for in-space communications relays and user terminals
  • iROC: A beaconless optical transceiver with integrated Ka-band capabilities for deep space deployment
  • Lunar LTE Studies: Metrology and analysis in support of integrating terrestrial LTE communication for use in the lunar environment
  • Quantum Communication: Metrology and development of multiple quantum communication techniques, including quantum memory
  • RealTOR: A high-rate, real-time optical communication receiver capability for ground implementation
  • SKOUT: An Active Phased Array antenna for near-earth Ka-band communications
  • STRS: Ongoing refinement of NASA-STD-4009, the open architecture standard for NASA software-defined radios
  • Wideband: A Ka-band software-defined radio terminal capable of seamless communication with government and commercial provider networks

As reported by OpenGov Asia, NASA is explicitly seeking international collaboration and outsourcing key technology solutions to the private sector. Therefore, NASA was cooperating with New Zealand on peaceful exploration and activity in outer space. The accords are an international agreement between governments that set principles around the exploration of space, including support of NASA’s Artemis programme to return humans to the Moon in 2024.

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