NASA plans to decommission its old communication satellites in orbit to replace them with advanced space-based communication infrastructures created by American companies. On April 20, NASA awarded millions to six companies, including rival broadband companies SpaceX Starlink and Amazon Project Kuiper. The combined funding of NASA’s award is $278.5 million to develop and demonstrate next-generation satellite communication (SATCOM) technologies as part of the agency’s Communications Services Project (CSP).
Amazon Project Kuiper, led by Jeff Bezos, has not launched any satellites yet. The company plans to launch a pair of prototypes before 2022 ends. The Kuiper constellation will consist of 3,236 satellites operating in low Earth orbit. SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, is actively deploying the Starlink broadband constellation on a weekly basis atop flight-proven Falcon 9 rockets since 2019. SpaceX currently operates around 2,200 internet-beaming Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit that are already providing internet to over 250,000 customers worldwide. Overall, SpaceX plans to operate a constellation of 12,000 Starlink satellites to be launched within the next six years.
SpaceX received a CSP NASA award valued at $69.95 million this week. “SpaceX’s proposed approach demonstrates a commercial optical low-Earth orbiting relay network for high-rate SATCOM services to spacecraft in low-Earth orbit for routine missions, contingency operations, launch and ascent, and early operations phase communications,” said NASA.
The planned Amazon Project Kuiper broadband network received $67 million from NASA. The other companies that received CSP government funding are: Viasat - $53.3 million, Telesat - $30.65 million, SES - $28.96 million, and Inmarsat - $28.6 million. The six companies will develop SATCOM technologies to conduct in-space demonstrations by 2025. “NASA expects each company to match or exceed agency contributions during the five-year development and demonstration period, totaling more than $1.5 billion of cost-share investment,” the agency said in a press release.
Once technology is demonstrated, NASA will select multiple companies with the best technology to sign long-term contract near-Earth satellite operations by 2030, while NASA decommission its older operating satellites. “We are following the agency’s proven approach developed through commercial cargo and commercial crew services. By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service,” said Eli Naffah, CSP project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. “The flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation, and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”
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