The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-K, blasted off Jan. 30 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The satellite is one piece in a broader plan to modernize the Space Network, which is a geosynchronous relay system that performs tracking and data transfer for NASA missions.
The Space Network's ground terminals date to the 1980s, and its communications protocols are becoming obsolete. Under a project called Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SNGSS), NASA is creating a more scalable ground terminal architecture.
TDRS-K is the eleventh satellite in NASA's TDRS program. The satellites provide tracking services and data streaming between Earth-orbiting missions, including the International Space Station, Hubble Telescope and climate research spacecraft, and the ground stations.
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TDRS-K, which will be renamed TDRS-11 when it reaches orbit at 22,300 miles, features redesigned telecom payload electronics and a high-performance solar panel to provide more power to the spacecraft.
Building high-speed communications in space is a big focus for NASA. In September 2011, it began working on a laser-based optical communications system to reduce the time it takes to transmit multimedia from space. And last October, NASA and the European Space Agency operated a small robot in Germany from the International Space Station, using a networking protocol designed for deep space communications.
TDRS-K will be put through a three-month test before it goes into service. The satellite is designed to operate for 15 years. NASA also revealed plans for two subsequent satellites: TDRS-L will launch in 2014, to be followed by TDRS-M. NASA's goal is to always have one TDRS in orbit as a spare, according to an agency spokesman.