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NASA Enthusiastic About Satellite Industry Relationship

By | May 27, 2015
      NASA David Miller

      Dr. David Miller, chief technologist at NASA. Photo: NASA

      [Via Satellite 05-27-2015] NASA sees its relationship with the satellite industry tightening as the agency pursues its objectives in each mission directorate. Earlier this month NASA released its draft 2015 technology roadmaps to industry and academia, which will guide the development of space technology. David Miller, chief technologist at NASA, told Via Satellite that the agency’s decision on the 14 different technology roadmaps — which range from launch propulsion systems to nanotechnology — will be heavily influenced by what the commercial sector can do.

      “In the prioritization process, one of our four main goals for how to prioritize our technology investments is how it helps the commercial space industry, which includes satellites. It’s important to us that new investments also support the commercial space sector,” said Miller, adding, “our relationship with the satellite industry is growing.”

      The draft 2015 NASA Technology Roadmaps are open to public comment from the agency’s stakeholders as well as the public until June 10. NASA is increasingly involved in collaborative efforts with the space industry both in the U.S. and around the world. Among the most recognizable is the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, where partners SpaceX and Orbital ATK provide launch services to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). These agreements have benefited NASA while helping SpaceX advance the Falcon 9 and Orbital ATK the Antares launch vehicles. The space agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative has also seen more than 100 satellites launched from the ISS, largely through NanoRacks.

      All four of NASA’s mission directorates — science, aeronautics, space technology, and human exploration and operations — leverage satellite technologies to varying degrees. Miller said the biggest surprise in recent years regarding the evolution of the satellite industry has come from the small satellite sector. Remote sensing entrepreneurs have looked to satellites, creating companies such as Skybox Imaging, Planet Labs and OmniEarth, and new ventures from SpaceX, OneWeb and LeoSat are vying to create large broadband constellations with similarly sized spacecraft. Mill said as small satellites advance, their capabilities could be of greater use to NASA.

      “There’s a lot more interest in agility in space, i.e. the ability to repair satellites, refuel them or possibly build large satellites using small robotic servicing satellites. I think there are some very interesting areas here, because there’s no end to a desire for larger telescopes for NASA’s missions — however big of a launch vehicle we build, we are always going to want to put a bigger telescope into it. Robotic assembly is a very interesting way to go. I think these small satellites will also help us in this arena by being servicing satellites for building and repairing these large systems,” he said.
      One of the most influential technologies NASA has promoted is that of electric propulsion, which uses charged particles to produce thrust in lieu of chemical fuel. NASA started working on electric propulsion in the 1950s, conducting the first in-space operational test in 1964, and pioneered its first use as a primary propulsion system from 1998 to 2001 on the Deep Space 1 (DS1) spacecraft.

      For NASA, the primary benefit of electric propulsion is its ability to enable long duration missions such as the Dawn spacecraft that reached Ceres in March this year, having launched in September 2007 and visiting the asteroid Vesta for roughly 14 months in 2012. Since industry has also seen great potential in the technology, NASA is prioritizing how it balances its own Research and Development (R&D) with that of industry.

      “Because you have to ionize the propellant, you need electricity so improving solar arrays is very important here,” explained Miller. “The area we are working on is not necessarily the solar cells themselves because there are various other organizations that have developed that technology very far, but to put them on structures that are much more lightweight. That way the integrated system is much more mass and volume efficient than they used to be. And that has many applications, not just solar electric propulsion.”
      Miller described laser communications as another area with large potential for commercial use, particularly within the satellite communications field. For NASA, the benefit is rapid high data rate communications both on near-Earth and deep-space missions. The agency included the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration on the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer

      (LADEE) mission that ended in 2014, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has a laser communications system, the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) on the ISS. Miller said there is also a plan to put up lasers on some future missions to Mars.

      Last year Airbus Defence and Space, in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), successfully linked two satellites by laser and, earlier this year, the company Laser Light partnered with Optus Satellite on a space-based optical communications system. Space Systems Loral (SSL) is currently building NASA’s next laser-comms mission, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), as a hosted payload to launch aboard an SSL-built satellite in 2017. Cognizant of the technology’s commercial opportunities, Miller said NASA is guiding the development of its own laser communications so that industry can benefit.

      “It’s not just a laser; there are many different components in a laser communications device. Some of those components are mission-specific and some of them are more generic. By modularizing, we keep the mission-specific parts in one module so that other parts that support it can also be used by the commercial sector for other laser-comms applications,” he said.

      One of NASA’s primary conduits to industry is the Technology Transfer program.  The agency will conduct cooperative developments working side by side with industry on projects of interest until their paths diverge. A popular example is the “robonaut” aboard the ISS that General Motors helped create. NASA’s Technology Transfer Program Executive Dan Lockney told Via Satellite that the most recent success is a software operating system for satellites called the Core Flight Executive (CFE). The flight system came out of Goddard Spaceflight Center where many of the agency’s science satellites are worked on, and has seen considerable attention since being placed in the public domain about three months ago.

      “SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation were knocking on our doors for it. Everyone wanted a copy of it, so we said: ok not only do we need to put this in public domain, but we need to create a user community around it where everyone has access to it and can continue its development.”
      Lockney said many of the users are new satellite developers such as academia, but not exclusively. A range of satellite companies have found applications as well as other sectors such as the drone industry.

      “Since that time we’ve seen thousands and thousands of downloads of it,” said Lockney. “To have a flight ready already approved good-to-go operating system that’s simple and has gone through all the numerous check lifts, to have that already made and available has been a giant boon for the satellite industry.”