An artist's rendering of a NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite in orbit, which the agency plans to eventually decommission for replacement by new private communications satellites. The agency this week awarded $278.5 million to six private satellite communications companies to develop near-Earth communications technology. Image courtesy of NASA
April 22 (UPI) -- NASA awarded nearly $280 million worth of contracts to private firms to begin developing near-Earth space communication services that may support future missions, the agency said this week.
The space agency will dole out $278.5 to six American satellite communications under its Communications Services Project, it announced on Wednesday.
The companies are expected to use the money for developing and demonstrating near-Earth space communication services. The six SATCOM companies will also contribute financially.
NASA has been evaluating the feasibility of employing commercial SATCOM networks for near-Earth operations for more than a year. The space agency is working toward decommissioning its current near-Earth satellite fleet.
It hopes the commercial partnership approach will allow it to focus more time and resources on its deep space exploration and science missions.
NASA 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.
"We are following the agency's proven approach developed through commercial cargo and commercial crew services. By using funded Space Act Agreements, we're able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service," NASA project manager Eli Naffah said in a statement.
"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," Naffah said.
Of the six companies, Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies, generally referred to as SpaceX, was awarded the largest overall amount of money -- $69.95 million.
Kuiper Government Solutions was awarded $67 million, while Viasat Incorporated was awarded $53.3 million. Inmarsat Government was awarded $28.6 million, SES Government Solutions was awarded $28.96 million and Telesat U.S. Services was awarded $30.65 million.
"Each company will complete technology development and in-space demonstrations by 2025 to prove their proposed solution will deliver robust, reliable, and cost-effective mission-oriented operations, including the ability for new high-rate and high-capacity two-way communications," reads a NASA statement.
The space agency also announced on Friday, that it has four more missions launching this year, which will gather essential data about the planet, including sea ice, air quality and weather.
There are currently 24 Earth-science missions in orbit, and NASA will launch four more by the end of 2022.
"The observations from these missions feed modules and research that really increase our understanding of how the Earth is evolving and predict how that change will continue in the future," NASA director Karen St. German told FOX Weather.