NASA’s Space Technology Program has awarded Space System/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., a $3 million contract to initiate the process of hosting a space laser communications relay demonstration terminal payload aboard a Loral commercial satellite, which launches in 2016.
The agreement marks the first time NASA has contracted to fly a payload on an American-manufactured commercial communications satellite.
NASA’s technology demonstration payload will be stationed high above the equator aboard the Loral spacecraft. This is a prime location to conduct communications experiments with other orbiting satellites or ground stations. Commercial communications satellites offer the location, size and power systems needed to conduct NASA’s space laser communications trials.
“Using a commercial communications satellite to host a NASA technology demonstration payload provides an opportunity to partner with American industry for the agency to gain access to space faster and at a lower cost than developing and launching dedicated satellites,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program in Washington. “Once deep space laser communications is operational, it will be like going from home dial-up Internet service to broadband.”
Space laser communications has the potential to provide 100 times higher data rates than traditional radio frequency with much less mass and power, which can be constraints when designing satellites.
“We are excited to be a part of this mission, which is particularly interesting because of the great potential for laser communications to revolutionize space exploration as well as the commercial satellite industry,” said John Celli, president of Space Systems/Loral.
Under this contract, Loral will work with NASA to determine the technical requirements for the space communications laser demonstration payload planned to be integrated with a Loral satellite platform.
The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration mission is one of several crosscutting flight demonstrations that NASA selected for development in 2011 because of its potential to provide tangible, near-term products and infuse high-impact capabilities into NASA’s future space operations missions.
By investing in high-payoff, disruptive technology that industry does not have today, NASA matures the technology required for its future missions while proving the capabilities and lowering the cost of government and commercial space activities.
The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration project is part of the agency’s Technology Demonstrations Missions Program, which matures crosscutting technology to flight readiness status through relevant environment testing, including testing in space. The primary objective of the Technology Demonstrations Missions are to “bridge the technology gap,” by maturing system-level space technologies through flight readiness and mission infusion.