NASA awards millions to SpaceX and Amazon’s Project Kuiper for satellite communications

An artist’s conception shows a NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite in orbit. (NASA Illustration)

Six satellite ventures — including SpaceX’s Starlink network and Amazon’s Project Kuiper — are due to receive a total of $278.5 million in NASA funding to demonstrate next-generation space communication services in Earth orbit.

The Communications Services Project is intended to smooth the transition from NASA’s constellation of dedicated communication satellites, known as Tracking and Data Relay Satellites or TDRS, to a commercially operated network that draws upon multiple providers.

NASA has turned to similar public-private models for space services including cargo resupply and crew transportation to the International Space Station, as well as the future delivery of scientific experiments and astronauts to the lunar surface.

“By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service,” Eli Naffah, project manager for the Communications Services Project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said today in a news release. “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.”

SpaceX’s satellites are manufactured at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., not far from the complex where Amazon’s Project Kuiper is developing its broadband satellites.

In addition to SpaceX and Project Kuiper, the contractors include U.S.-based ventures representing Inmarsat, SES, Telesat and Viasat. Each venture will be required to complete technology development and in-space demonstrations by 2025 to prove that its system can deliver robust, reliable and cost-effective services — including the ability for new high-rate and high-capacity two-way links.

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NASA would follow up by negotiating long-term contracts with multiple vendors to acquire services for near-Earth operations by 2030, while phasing out satellite communications systems owned and operated by the space agency. That’s around the time when the International Space Station is due to be retired and deorbited.

Here are details about the six contractors:

  • Kuiper Government Solutions LLC, an Amazon subsidiary based in Arlington, Va., has been awarded $67 million. Kuiper’s proposed approach demonstrates an optical relay network for high- and low-rate satellite communications services to spacecraft for routine missions, contingency operations and early operations phase communications. Both the Kuiper network and the spacecraft to be served would be in low Earth orbit, or LEO.
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., has been awarded $69.95 million for a proposed approach similar to Kuiper’s.
  • Inmarsat Government Inc. of Reston, Va., a U.S. subsidiary of London-based Inmarsat, has been awarded $28.6 million. Inmarsat’s proposed approach demonstrates an L-band relay network in geostationary Earth orbit, or GEO, for low-rate satellite communications services to spacecraft and launch vehicles for routine missions, contingency operations, launch and ascent, and early operations phase communications.
  • SES Government Solutions of Reston, a U.S. subsidiary of Luxembourg-based SES, has been awarded $28.96 million. SES’ proposed approach demonstrates radio-frequency satellite communications services at high and low rates for spacecraft in LEO, for routine missions, contingency operations, launch and ascent, and early operations phase communications. C-band services would be provided from GEO, and Ka-band services would be provided from LEO.
  • Telesat U.S. Services LLC of Arlington, a U.S. subsidiary of Canada-based Telesat, has been awarded $30.65 million. Telesat’s proposed approach demonstrates radio-frequency relay networks for high- and- low-rate communications services to spacecraft in LEO for routine missions. The plan calls for a C-band network in GEO and a Ka-band network in LEO.
  • Viasat Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., has been awarded $53.3 million. Viasat’s approach demonstrates a Ka-band network in GEO for high- and low-rate communications services to spacecraft in LEO for routine launch and missions.
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NASA said it 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.

Rusty Thomas, director of Kuiper Government Solutions, said in an emailed statement that he and his team were “honored to have been selected by NASA to take part in the Communications Services Project.”

“We’re designing Project Kuiper to deliver high-speed, low-latency broadband service to a wide range of customers, and this award is an additional vote of confidence that we’re on the right path,” Thomas said. “We’re excited to provide our government customers with a secure, reliable and resilient communications network, and proud to support future NASA missions requiring advanced space-to-space communications.”

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