Bridenstine Sees New Potential for CHIRP

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. lawmaker who has been active in promoting wider government use of private sector space capabilities has raised the possibility of reactivating an idled missile-warning demonstration sensor hosted aboard a commercial telecommunications satellite.

The Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, commonly known as CHIRP, was installed and launched in September 2011 aboard the SES-2 telecommunications satellite owned by fleet operator SES of Luxembourg. Industry officials have touted CHIRP as a successful trailblazer that could lead to an increase in government payloads on commercial satellites.

While active, the sensor was used to observe several launches, and the Air Force in October 2013 extended the CHIRP operating contract with SES, signing a deal that featured six-month options running through July 2015. Two months later, however, the service cut the experiment short due to budget pressures.

U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine
“What I’d like to see from an Armed Services [Committee] perspective is more military capabilities being put on hosted payloads,” U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) said. Credit: Corey Lack Pictures

During a panel discussion on commercially hosted government payloads at the Satellite 2015 trade show here, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) said the sensor could find new life in monitoring weather conditions or wildfires.

“What we’re looking at now is can the CHIRP mission can be turned back on for missions that aren’t necessarily missile defense related,” said Bridenstine, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

In the past, Air Force officials have said the CHIRP sensor could support federal and international agencies dealing with events such as volcanoes, floods, snow and ice accumulation, electrical grid blackouts and forest fires.

Throughout its mission, CHIRP collected more than 300 terabytes of data on 70 missile and rocket launches, and 150 other thermal events, SES has said.

Bridenstine said hosted payloads make sense for the Pentagon because the government should not worry about standard satellite infrastructure such as a satellite bus.  Instead it should focus its limited dollars on instruments specific to government requirements that may not have a broader commercial market.

“What I’d like to see from an Armed Services [Committee] perspective is more military capabilities being put on hosted payloads,” he said.

The Air Force has created a contracting vehicle to standardize the processes and interfaces for placing dedicated military capabilities aboard commercial satellites. In June, the service awarded contracts to 14 space companies, effectively qualifying them to provide certain services and hardware in support of hosted payload missions.

But Air Force officials have said the Hosted Payload Solutions, or HoPS, contracting vehicle likely will be used exclusively for civilian scientific missions for its first three to five years.

If there is a sign of progress, military officials have said Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which buys space hardware, now requires its directorates to formally consider hosted payloads as a possibility as the service examines new satellite architectures.

Meanwhile, Bridenstine, also expressed hope that Congress would fund a Defense Department “pathfinder” program that was set up to examine new ways to procure communications services from the private sector.

“The pathfinders need to be funded,” Bridenstine said.

Under the first pathfinder contract, awarded in June, SES Government Solutions of McLean, Virginia, is leasing the full capacity of an aging satellite covering Africa to a Pentagon customer.

A request for information for the second pathfinder, under which the Air Force will experiment with the prelaunch purchase of a full transponder, was issued later that same month. Currently, however, there is no funding for the second pathfinder in the Air Force’s 2016 budget request.

“That’s problematic,” Bridenstine said. “As a member of Congress I’m going to make sure, to the best I can, that Pathfinder 2 is funded. We’re going to get that money put back in the budget.”