Commercial Communications Satellites for the Moon

NASA wants a for-profit network to support lunar missions

PHOTO: Jack Ambrose/Getty Images

NASA is planning to rely on commercial communications and navigation services to support missions to the moon in the next decade, say engineers at Johnson Space Center, in Houston. The network, consisting of moon-orbiting satellites and ground stations on Earth, would initially serve robotic lunar missions by NASA, other governments, and private ventures. It would expand to provide 70 percent of the communication requirements for human space missions by the end of 2020, according to NASA documents. The network is especially needed for future low-power sensors on the moon and to reach lunar areas not directly visible from Earth or Earth-orbiting satellites, such as the moon’s farside and the insides of craters at its poles.

Lead engineer Rob Kelso says NASA has already begun discussions with satellite communications industry experts to figure out the bandwidth and system architecture requirements needed for such a network. However, at this point, NASA is focused on the business structure of the network and finding ”a mutually acceptable approach to balancing investment, commitment, and risk,” says Kelso.

NASA could take a number of paths toward a commercial moon network, but according to Kelso the agency is leaning toward using satellite communications firm Intelsat as a model. With its fleet of more than 50 orbiters, Intelsat is now the largest commercial satellite operator in the world. The company began as an intergovernmental organization serving its member nations and was privatized in 2001. The U.S. government would be a major stockholder in the new lunar-network company, and the corporation would choose and develop the technology to serve its customers. NASA engineers have dubbed the entity LunaCorp. (A firm carrying that name once planned private robotic moon rovers, but it was disbanded in 2003.)

NASA would still directly develop basic low-data-rate systems for voice, biomedical data, vehicle safety, and health monitoring functions. But LunaCorp would augment that with high-data-rate services for telemetry, navigation, video, science data, surface-to-surface communications, and biomedical imaging. Kelso says that as a safety net, the space agency would retain the right to buy out LunaCorp.

Judging by the slew of comments and studies submitted to NASA regarding the privatization proposal, commercial communications and navigations suppliers are interested but wary. Industrial leaders recognize that ”their future does include servicing markets on the moon,” according to a study by Jon Michael Smith written for Wyle Laboratories, in El Segundo, Calif. But for LunaCorp or some other form of private lunar communications scheme to take off, NASA needs to ”make an early long-range commitment to buy commercial lunar high-data-rate services—and agree not to compete with industry on this capability,” writes Smith.

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