optical communications (NASA)

NASA expands satellite communications with 'roaming' feature

NASA is developing a new wideband Ka-band communications terminal that will allow spacecraft to seamlessly connect to various government and commercial communications networks.

For almost 40 years, near-constant communication between the ground and satellites in low-Earth orbit has been managed by the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites system, NASA said, but the infrastructure was not designed to support interoperability between networks. This new wideband Ka terminal will allow satellites to connect with multiple space relay networks, including TDRS, agency officials said.

The new terminal operates over both government and commercial Ka-band spectrum and will give spacecraft a type of “roaming” function, allowing them to switch between service providers. The terminal will deliver lower latency and lower costs while also supporting NASA’s move to commercial providers for near-Earth space communications and navigation.

Recent ground testing showed that a prototype of the wideband Ka terminal could successfully switch service in real time between NASA’s TDRS system and Inmarsat’s Global Xpress Satellite. In 2025, the roaming technology will be evaluated in a space environment where communications will be tested across multiple government and commercial networks.

“This terminal will allow missions to reduce risk and costs by offering competitive choices for where they get their commercial satellite service,” said Marie Piasecki, Wideband Project Principal Investigator at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. “A high Technology Readiness Level terminal capable of operating on a wide assortment of networks truly takes advantage of commercial investments in space.”

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