Editorial | Change in the Weather

by

Kudos to AsiaSat for stepping up with a big commitment to GeoMetWatch (GMW), one of at least two U.S. companies trying to establish a commercial weather satellite business.

GMW’s approach is to persuade satellite operators — commercial or government — to host its meteorological payloads aboard geostationary-orbiting telecommunications spacecraft. The company aims to build a global network consisting of six such payloads and sell the data to weather agencies.

Hong Kong-based AsiaSat, a regional telecom satellite operator, will be the first host, agreeing to place GMW’s refrigerator-sized sensor — a hyperspectral sounder originally developed for a since-canceled NASA project — aboard a satellite slated to launch in 2016. What’s more, AsiaSat has agreed to pay for the sensor, along with its integration with the satellite. The estimated cost: $185 million, including financing. That’s not chump change for anybody these days.

AsiaSat and GMW will share the revenue generated by the sensor, which will cover the Asia-Pacific region. GMW will issue a convertible note of as-yet-undetermined value to AsiaSat, and also will pay the operator a hosting fee. In other words, AsiaSat, whose shares are publicly traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange, has effectively signed on as a ground-floor investor and partner in the GMW venture.

With so many countries — notably the United States — seeking to dramatically reduce spending, this is the kind of innovative approach to fielding space-based capabilities that should be getting more attention from both industry and government. GMW is not only piggybacking on a commercial satellite, it also is leveraging a past government investment in space technology that otherwise might have gone to waste.

During the 29th National Space Symposium April 9-11 in Colorado Springs, Colo., the conversation was dominated by the bleak U.S. budgetary outlook and coping strategies like disaggregation, whereby multimission payloads currently flying on large spacecraft would be broken up and placed on larger numbers of smaller craft. The jury is out on whether this will save money in the long run, but clearly it will require some up-front investment, and therein lies the rub: It will be difficult in the current budget environment for the government to make that investment while sustaining the existing constellations. But hosted payload opportunities are a key component of the disaggregation puzzle that’s available now with minimal investment — 20 to 25 commercial telecommunications satellites are launched each year to geostationary orbit.

In conjunction with the symposium, an industry coalition dubbed the Hosted Payload Alliance held a private workshop with prospective government customers to discuss opportunities and challenges associated with the concept. Senior representatives from NASA headquarters and Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), unable to attend due to sequestration-related travel restrictions, agreed to participate via video teleconference, and that’s a positive sign. But industry attendees also expressed frustration at persistent cultural barriers to full-scale utilization of hosted payload opportunities, particularly in the Air Force.

That’s unfortunate because the Air Force is on the verge of missing a once-in-a-generation hosted payload opportunity that’s available right now: The 66 Iridium Next low Earth orbiting satellites slated to begin launching in 2015. Even though the satellites are nearing the production phase, there remains time for the Air Force to place sensors on the craft that would enable defense officials to distinguish between naturally occurring and man-made radiation events in space — an important capability given the growing threat of satellite signal-jamming attacks. Industry could not have made this any easier for the Air Force: The sensors would be able to plug right into the electronic boxes being installed on the Iridium Next satellites as part of the Aireon commercial hosted payload venture, which aims to sell aircraft position-location data to air traffic management authorities.

The Air Force needs to take a cue from NASA, which seems to be fully embracing hosted payload opportunities through missions such as the Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution project. To its credit, SMC is developing a contracting vehicle for hosted payloads, but there is widespread agreement within industry that the organization is still moving too slowly. Government bureaucracies like SMC are notoriously resistant to change, but in this day and age, change they must.

Budget austerity dictates that government and industry aggressively pursue new types of arrangements that leverage one another’s investments to the extent possible. In some cases, the private sector can take on missions that were once the exclusive province of governments. The GMW venture is prime example of both, and AsiaSat is to be commended for giving it a very important lift.

RELATED ARTICLE

AsiaSat To Finance and Host Commercial Weather Sensor