CHIRP highlighted within the SES-2 satellite. Credit: SES

SAN FRANCISCO — NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver compares the commercial satellites that serve as hosts for government payloads to the food trucks that roam major cities selling everything from tacos to cupcakes directly to customers.

“The larger restaurants don’t always love the food trucks and big satellite folks don’t always love hosted payloads,” Garver said Feb. 1 during the Space Entrepreneurship Forum at Stanford University. “But these innovations have allowed us to get fresher food sooner at less cost and better data earlier at less cost.”

Those words were music to the ears of space industry officials who formed the Hosted Payload Alliance (HPA), a nonprofit trade association, to publicize the advantages of sending government payloads into orbit on commercial satellites. The seven companies that established HPA in September 2011 include some of the world’s largest satellite manufacturers and operators: Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, Intelsat General Corp., Iridium Communications Inc., Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Orbital Sciences Corp., SES World Skies U.S. Government Solutions and Space Systems/Loral. Since then, 11 additional companies have joined HPA’s ranks, including spacecraft integrators and launch providers.

The association brings together senior space industry executives and representatives of government agencies to discuss the potential benefits of hosted payloads as well as impediments to their widespread use. “We are focusing on opening dialogue between government and industry,” said Janet Nickloy, HPA chairwoman and director of aerospace mission solutions for Harris Government Communications Systems of Melbourne, Fla. “We are creating an environment where people can put all their concerns on the table.”

Established: March 2011

Membership: 14 executive members and four associate members

Top Officials: Chairwoman Janet Nickloy, Harris Government Communications Systems director of aerospace mission solutions; Vice Chairwoman Nicole Robinson, SES Government Solutions vice president for marketing

Mission: To increase awareness of the benefits of hosted government payloads on commercial satellites

For government officials, one of those concerns is information security. How will information drawn from space-based sensors be fed into government data networks, for example? Another concern is the fast pace of commercial programs. U.S. government agencies can spend a decade or more evaluating requirements for new space-based systems, issuing contracts, conducting testing and preparing for launch. Firms that build and operate billion-dollar commercial communication satellites proceed far more quickly and adhere to firm schedules, which can be difficult for government agencies to meet.

U.S. Air Force officials recognized this mismatch in schedules when their first payload destined for a commercial ride into orbit, the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP), missed its flight. In 2008, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles signed a contract with satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg to mate the missile warning sensor, which was based on an Air Force design and built by Science Applications International Corp., onto an Orbital Sciences-built satellite scheduled to launch in 2010. Sensor development, testing and mating with the spacecraft took longer than expected, however. Fortunately, SES was able to accommodate CHIRP on SES-2, another Orbital satellite launched in September 2011 on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, said Nicole Robinson, SES Government Solutions vice president for marketing and HPA vice chairwoman.

In spite of the challenges the CHIRP program posed, SMC officials are looking for additional hosted payload projects. In 2011, SMC established a Hosted Payload Office to explore ways the Air Force could use hosted payloads to accomplish missions, including weather monitoring, space situational awareness and missile warning. In September 2012, SMC asked companies to submit a Statement of Capabilities describing ways their firms could assist the Air Force in integrating, launching and operating hosted payloads on orbit. Although the initial proposals are characterized as market research, SMC is seeking to identify contractors to work on an undefined number of hosted payload programs, according to the announcement on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

HPA officials said the formation of the SMC office and solicitation for proposals are concrete signs of the government’s growing interest in commercial satellite capabilities. Another is NASA’s plan announced in November to launch a pollution-monitoring sensor as a hosted payload on a commercial satellite. The price tag for sending the Earth science sensor into orbit on a commercial spacecraft will be a fraction of what NASA would spend to fly it on a space agency satellite, Garver said. What’s more, NASA can launch the sensor in four years instead of waiting 10 years or more for a flight, she added.

That is exactly the type of benefit HPA is designed to advertise. “Hosted payloads offer a completely new set of opportunities for the government to get space access much more quickly,” Nickloy said. NASA, the Defense Department and other agencies will continue to build and fly their own spacecraft. For targeted missions that do not require a dedicated satellite, hosted payloads are an increasingly attractive option, Nickloy added.

Still, space industry officials admit there are challenges inherent in merging the government and commercial satellite cultures. In September, SMC published a draft statement of work for hosted payload projects that includes dozens of data requirements. “The workload for that amount of documentation is daunting,” said a space industry official not connected with HPA. “It consumes time and costs money.”

HPA tries to resolve this type of issue through the meetings it arranges for government and industry officials. Last year, HPA organized meetings and panel discussions in conjunction with major conferences, including Satellite 2012 in Washington, the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., Reinventing Space in Los Angeles and Satcon 2012 in New York. On April 8, HPA plans to hold a workshop for National Space Symposium attendees to discuss specific obstacles preventing government agencies from making greater use of hosted payloads and potential solutions. Those obstacles include procurement strategies and satellite operations. Participants will discuss, for example, how the satellite operator and hosted payload operator would work together to resolve any power or frequency issues.

This type of forum is designed to help government and industry officials “remove the roadblocks,” Nickloy said. “We are hoping that a year from now both industry and government will see a clear path on how to make hosted payloads more commonplace.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is...