Next Generation TDRSS – NASA Turns to Commercial

By: Jordan Buck, 2024-07-07

NASA’s fleet of relay satellites, called the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (System) also known as TDRS or TDRSS is aging. There are six satellites in service, ranging from 1993 to 2017 launch dates. So, NASA has decided to close off all new users to prepare for the advent of widespread commercial alternates to replace this service. There is a market need for both a reliable data relay service program, as well as near real-time access to all sorts of satellites and instruments. Therefore, a new LEO constellation could provide these services with less latency and higher throughput. NASA has put out initial funding towards six companies with services that could potentially replace TDRSS. There are assorted options between GEO, MEO, and LEO satellites, with both optical and RF communication links that the different companies have proposed. This should allow for a wide range of options for NASA eventually to down select. For now, there are a few more rounds needed for constellation building, full system installation, and operational demonstrations but progress is coming along nicely according to NASA.


Relay satellites are an interesting target in terms of a threat actor point of view. If access is gained to a constellation of highly networked satellites, then there are a lot of satellites that could be targeted as a result. The period of access for normal satellites is only a handful of minutes out of each day, meaning there is some built-in protection from constant onslaught. Having a near real-time relay satellite system effectively means that communications can be guaranteed most of the time, depending on the exact orbit. This increases the attack surface for any actor. In terms of attacking the relay satellite itself, there could be concern due to commercial companies being in charge and driven by profit, rather than a government organization driven by purpose. Cybersecurity is not often thought of in terms of the budget, resulting in reduced security. With the sheer volume of data that relay satellites see and what threat actors could tamper with, cybersecurity is necessary for these new satellite constellations.