NASA goes to GD for new satellite architecture

Agency moves to modernize Tracking Data and Relay Satellite System

The $642.2 million contract that NASA awarded recently to General Dynamics C4 Systems is a study in opposites. It’s new work but for an existing system. It’s a blast to the past and getting systems as much as 20 years old to talk to contemporary systems, but it’s also back to the future and making communications better for users in 2030. It’s all about space and satellites, but it’s earthbound.

Specifically, it’s about helping to modernize the ground system and network for NASA’s Tracking Data and Relay Satellite System.

TDRSS is the agency’s communication signal relay system that links low-Earth-orbiting (LEO) spacecraft and ground-based systems, and it provides tracking and data acquisition services.

The space segment comprises eight tracking and data relay satellites (TDRSes) in geosynchronous orbit. Together with the ground segment, it comprises the Space Network, which provides resources for global space-to-ground telecommunications and tracking coverage for low-Earth-orbit and near-Earth robotic and human spaceflight missions.

The ground segment, which General Dynamics C4 Systems will be updating through the cost-plus-award fee, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract, includes the White Sands Ground Terminal in New Mexico and other facilities in Guam. The ground segment controls the TDRSes. It receives downlink data from customers’ LEO satellites via the TDRSes and uplinks data via the TDRS satellites to the LEO satellites.

According to the seven-year Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment contract, General Dynamics will replace the Space Network’s obsolete systems with an entirely new, more flexible and expandable open standards-based architecture, which it will develop.

The new architecture will be reaching back to operate and interact with TDRS-C, launched in 1988. The oldest TDRS first-generation satellite was decommissioned in October 2009 after its communications link to the ground failed, and it was retired in June. Operations and data for the first-generation satellites must also be interoperable with second-generation satellites — launched in 2000 and 2002 — and third-generation, high-data-rate TDRS-K and TDRS-L satellites that are planned for launch through 2013.

General Dynamics C4 Systems also will expand and improve the way Space Network user control centers interface with the Space Network Ground Segment for data and service planning and control and for maintaining long-term operational performance, reliability and maintainability, NASA said.

Putting the new system into action with no disruption to the Space Network will be a major challenge of the project. Integration, testing and transition must be done without interrupting the Space Network's operations.

In addition to using TDRSS for more than 50 customer satellites, NASA also uses TDRSS to support its own scientific and human space flight missions, including the Hubble Telescope, Space Shuttle, Gamma Ray Observatory, Landsat land usage data collection program, and U.S./French TOPEX/Poseidon project for gathering high-accuracy sea level data for use in climate change research. NASA’s 15 satellite missions produce nearly 4T of data daily.

With successful network integration and data standardization and together with the Global Positioning System, TDRSS could live up to NASA's hopes and evolve into a space-based Internet for communications and navigation.

General Dynamics partners on the contract include Harris Corp., GMV Space Systems Inc., Rincon Research Corp., a.i. Solutions Inc., RT Logic Inc. and Qwaltec Inc.

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

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