The Exploration and Space Communications icon floats above the Earth with the Moon in the background. Credit: NASA
TDRS, ESC, NSN, ACCESS, commercialization 

Near-Space Communications Reimagined

Fueling the Commercial Space Economy

By Danny Baird & Katherine Schauer

November 18, 2020

The Exploration and Space Communications (ESC) projects division at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has reorganized its portfolio to execute the bold commercialization plan set forth by NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program. This plan cements the U.S. government’s commitment to engage with private industry to build a commercial space economy.

“Goddard has long been a center of excellence for mission-critical space communications and navigation services and technologies,’” said Bob Menrad, associate director for flight projects – ESC, “with this reorganization we reimagine government’s relationship with industry in space communications and navigation, leading NASA’s efforts to grow a robust and competitive marketplace.”

The reorganization supports SCaN’s vision of transferring 100% of Earth-proximity, direct-to-ground communications services to commercial industry. For 60 years, NASA has relied on government-managed infrastructure for space communications, but private industry has now matured to a level where companies can provide robust space communications services to NASA spacecraft. ESC will provide the management and expertise necessary to guide these burgeoning service providers into the space communications marketplace of the future.

Goddard will continue to provide geosynchronous relay services through the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation while SCaN assesses the viability of commercial space relay services. ESC’s reorganization places the sustainment of government-owned, contractor-operated network assets like TDRS into one project, while establishing a project that serves as a one-stop shop for seamless network services provided by private companies or NASA-owned infrastructure.

The reorganization also creates a new office responsible for industry outreach and engagement. The office will also identify opportunities for innovation, ushering new ideas from infancy to fruition across government and the private sector.

Advanced Communications Capabilities for Exploration and Science Systems (ACCESS) project

The Advanced Communications Capabilities for Exploration and Science Systems (ACCESS) project will operate, maintain, and sustain government-owned, contractor-operated ground and flight-based systems. By placing all of Goddard’s infrastructure into one project, NASA can find efficiencies that reduce cost overall. Consolidating management will allow for unified leadership in IT security, technology development, and the infusion of new capabilities into the network.

ACCESS-managed assets include the TDRS constellation and associated ground stations: the White Sands Complex in Las Cruces, New Mexico; the Blossom Point Relay Station in Maryland; the Australian TDRS System Facility in Dongara, Western Australia; and the Guam Remote Ground Terminal. It also includes direct-to-Earth ground stations like those on Wallops Island, Virginia; in Fairbanks, Alaska; and at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. This critical infrastructure will continue to support missions while NASA cultivates a commercial communications marketplace.

While maintaining and operating this infrastructure, ACCESS also manages key capability implementation efforts. They oversee an initiative to implement Ka-band antennas at ground stations on Wallops Island, Virginia; in Fairbanks, Alaska; in Punta Arenas, Chile; and in Svalbard, Norway. High data-rate Ka-band communications will be crucial to missions with cutting edge science instruments gathering large volumes of data.

ACCESS also manages several of NASA’s optical ground stations and flight systems, contributing to the development of revolutionary optical communications technologies. Optical can offer even higher data rates than Ka-band while reducing the size, weight, and power requirements of spacecraft communications systems.

Near Space Network (NSN) project

The Near Space Network (NSN) is a single point of contact for mission-support service fulfillment, connecting user missions to both government and commercial communications services. They offer a comprehensive set of services including mission planning, integration, spectrum management, communications scheduling, and critical operations launch support. The NSN will also work with space communications vendors, garnering a diverse and competitive marketplace that can support NASA’s large fleet of missions in near-Earth space.

“The NSN will serve as a single, unified interface for all of Goddard’s networking, spectrum, and mission planning services,” said NSN project manager Vir Thanvi. “Through the NSN, we will continue to offer unparalleled communications solutions to NASA missions.”

The NSN will allow Goddard to seamlessly expand the commercial services offered in ESC’s communications architecture. It will also ease the customer experience by providing one interface for all stages of mission planning and execution. Ultimately, the NSN will drive down costs through increased efficiencies and marketplace competition.

Commercialization, Innovation, and Synergies (CIS) office

The Commercialization, Innovation, and Synergies (CIS) office nurtures diverse relationships across government, academia and the aerospace industry, offering ESC’s expertise in communications and exploration systems. The office identifies opportunities for collaborative solutions to the communications challenges of tomorrow. CIS will develop up-and-coming commercial partners into robust and reliable options for use by the Near Space Network and link those partners with Goddard subject matter expertise.

“CIS performs a new strategic function for ESC, incentivizing new players to join the communications marketplace,” said CIS Office Chief LaNetra Tate. “At the same time, CIS will leverage Goddard’s rich legacy in technology development for the benefit of all.”

In addition to nurturing commercial partnerships for the NSN, CIS also assumes ESC’s portfolio of innovative, exploration-focused technology development efforts. ESC will continue to share Goddard’s cross-cutting expertise in advanced exploration technologies across NASA, government, and industry, collaborating to empower science and exploration. CIS will continue this legacy, supplying commercial partners with Goddard’s know-how in diverse fields ranging from avionics and software to architecture analysis and advanced exploration systems development.

Space communications has evolved since NASA first began launching missions into near-Earth space. Over these many decades, networks and services based at Goddard have undergone many changes — in name, in function, and in ability. One thing has not changed: Goddard’s dedication to meeting its commitments.

While ESC moves towards this new commercial communications archetype, the division will continue to support its long-standing agreements with vital science and exploration missions. All the while, ESC will work with new missions and stakeholders to ensure they receive the full benefits of a commercial communications marketplace.

For 60 years, Goddard has provided critical, mission-enabling communications and navigation services to a diverse set of customers. Embracing commercial services, Goddard assures that it will continue to lead communications in the near-Earth regime for many years to come.