Hosted Military Telecom Payloads Pose Big Compatibility Challenges

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NEW YORK — Military telecom payloads are not ideal candidates for placement aboard commercial satellites in the near term, according to a senior U.S. Air Force official, an assessment that appears to put a damper on at least one opportunity that satellite operators had set their sights upon.

At the same time, however, Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles, said there are realistic near-term hosted payload opportunities in at least three other applications: space situational awareness, space-environment monitoring and wide-field infrared surveillance. The Air Force is on the verge of soliciting industry bids for a contracting vehicle that could be used to execute on some of those programs, she said.

In a budget environment that leaves virtually no room for new starts of big programs, the Air Force is looking to better leverage the robust commercial satellite sector to get new capabilities on orbit. Piggybacking dedicated military payloads on commercial telecom satellites is viewed as one such avenue, and among the mission opportunities in the crosshairs of commercial operators is protected tactical communications.

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Currently this service is provided by the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) line of secure communications satellites, which also carry payloads used by national authorities, including the president, for command and control of nuclear forces. But under a concept known in military space parlance as disaggregation, the Air Force is considering flying the strategic and tactical AEHF payloads on different satellites.

The tactical AEHF payload does not require the same level of nuclear radiation hardening as its strategic counterpart, which is one reason the commercial satellite operators see it as a hosted payload opportunity.

But Pawlikowski, speaking Nov. 14 at the Satcon 2012 conference here, threw cold water on the idea, citing challenges associated with placing military communications payloads aboard commercial satellites, which are overwhelmingly used for telecommunications.

Communications payloads tend to have high mass and power requirements, and that plus spectrum compatibility issues makes it difficult to accommodate separate military and commercial telecom payloads aboard a single satellite platform, she said.

Pawlikowski cautioned that the Air Force has not ruled out the hosted payload option for secure tactical communications — assuming the Air Force ultimately decides to disaggregate the AEHF mission. But she said the Air Force currently views another alternative more favorably: placing the tactical AEHF payload aboard a dedicated commercial-like satellite platform.

“If indeed we found a host that had the size, weight and power to cover one of our protected [communications] payloads and was in the location we wanted to be in, then certainly we would entertain a protected [communications] hosted payload,” she said. “But as we have gone through the systems engineering of this architecture, right now, the standalone tactical payload on a commercial-style bus is looking more attractive.”

SMC, the Air Force’s procurement shop for satellites and rockets, has expressed interest in procuring satellite platforms developed for the commercial market — manufacturers churn these out more quickly and at less cost than custom-designed government craft — and adapting them for dedicated military missions. Industry officials say the Air Force has created a program to procure commercially available satellite platforms on a regular basis, but the service has refused to discuss the effort.

Pawlikowski’s remarks appeared to have taken some industry officials in attendance by surprise.

In response to a SpaceNews query, Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General Corp., the Bethesda, Md.-based government solutions division of satellite operator Intelsat, lauded SMC for considering disaggregated architectures for “resilient and affordable military communications” and said the commercial satellite sector has a key role to play in that regard. “We can bring significant savings to SMC space missions and we don’t believe there are technical, spectrum or logistical showstoppers to tactical [military satellite communications] affordably hosted on commercial satellites.”

Robert “Tip” Osterthaler, president and chief executive of McLean, Va.-based SES Government Solutions, a subsidiary of European satellite operator SES, acknowledged challenges associated with hosting government communications payloads aboard commercial communications satellites. Spectrum for both payloads at the same location must be available, and the hosting satellite cannot be moved absent spectrum rights for both payloads at the new location, he said. “These potential challenges could potentially be overcome, particularly in exotic bands where no one but the U.S. government has much interest,” he said.

There are no acknowledged commercial satellite applications in the frequency bands used by the AEHF spacecraft.

Osterthaler nonetheless conceded Pawlikowski’s point that it might be easier to host payloads with applications like weather or Earth sensing aboard commercial satellites whose primary mission is communications.

Pawlikowski identified three such near-term opportunities, subject to funding availability. One of those is a space situational awareness sensor dubbed Skipray. According to the Federal Business Opportunities procurement website, Skipray is a local space situational awareness sensor that is standardized for all U.S. government satellite platforms as well as a variety of geostationary-orbiting commercial platforms.

Pawlikowski also said the Air Force and Iridium Communications of McLean are in discussions about placing space-environment sensors aboard the company’s next-generation constellation of 66 low-orbiting satellites, to be launched starting in 2015. Because of the tight schedule, it would be difficult to execute this opportunity under the upcoming hosted payload solicitation, which is expected to yield awards of indefinite-quantity, indefinite-delivery contracts to qualified providers.

Another potential near-term opportunity is a follow-on to the successful Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, an experimental missile warning sensor that launched last year aboard an SES-owned telecom satellite, Pawlikowski said.

“I would be very hard pressed to say which of those three would be the first one out of the chute,” Pawlikowski said, adding that SMC also is acting to facilitate hosted payload missions for other Pentagon agencies.