“When it comes to do doing something outside the norm, it was a huge challenge,” Janet Nickloy, chairwoman of the Hosted Payload Alliance, said. Credit: Space Foundation/Chuck Bigger

WASHINGTON — NASA might use a contracting vehicle created by the U.S. Air Force to leverage so-called hosted payloads opportunities to secure space on a commercial satellite platform for a pollution sensor the civil space agency hopes to launch around 2017.

NASA’s $90 million Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) mission would be among the first to take advantage of the contracting vehicle, being prepared by the Hosted Payload Office at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles. The indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract is intended to facilitate military use of available space aboard commercial satellites by creating a stable of qualified providers and technical standards for payload accommodations.

In an emailed response to SpaceNews questions, NASA spokesman Steve Cole said the agency is working closely with SMC as it develops the contracting vehicle and has agreed to be part of the initial request for proposals, which could feature study tasks on behalf of NASA.

“Based on the results of these studies, and on the developmental progress of the TEMPO instrument, NASA may choose to use the SMC [contracting vehicle] to secure an eventual host platform for the TEMPO instrument,” Cole said “We expect that decision will be made sometime in 2014.”

The final request for proposals for SMC’s hosted payload contracting vehicle is expected in May, with contract awards to follow in December, according to Janet Nickloy, who chairs the board of the Hosted Payload Alliance, an industry group that promotes dialogue between providers and prospective government customers. Nickloy is director of aerospace mission solutions for Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp.’s Government Communications Systems group, which is supplying payloads to be hosted aboard the 66 planned Iridium Next communications satellites for the Aireon air traffic management venture.

David Anhalt, a vice president of government solutions at commercial satellite manufacturer Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., and a Hosted Payload Alliance board member, said SMC is expected to select up to 14 providers of hosted payload services. Nine of the contracts will focus on geostationary orbiting satellites, with five dedicated to low- and medium-altitude satellites, he said.

The selected prime contractors likely will be a mix of satellite operators, manufacturers and related service providers and must be U.S. based, Anhalt said. Some of the world’s biggest satellite operators and hosted payload advocates are based overseas, but these companies have U.S. subsidiaries that routinely do business with the Pentagon.

Bidders will be required to show how they would accommodate a military hosted payload for X-band communications, Anhalt said. Air Force officials have suggested that communications missions might not necessarily lend themselves to hosted-payload solutions, due in part to radio frequency compatibility issues.

Anhalt and Nickloy spoke with SpaceNews April 9, a day after the Hosted Payload Alliance held a closed workshop with government officials in Colorado Springs, Colo., in conjunction with the 29th National Space Symposium there. Among the featured government speakers, some of whom participated remotely due to sequestration-related travel restrictions, were NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver; Lt. Gen. John Hyten, vice commander of Space Command; and Col. Scott Beidleman, SMC’s developmental planning director.

Both Anhalt and Nickloy were generally positive about the outcome of the workshop and cited the Air Force’s participation as a genuine indication of interest in hosted payloads. But they also said the Air Force, despite pressing ahead with the hosted payload contracting vehicle, has not been as aggressive as NASA in pursuing these kinds of opportunities.

Ahnalt cited TEMPO and other NASA missions that will leverage commercial spacecraft, including demonstrations of a deep-space atomic clock and a laser-optical communications relay. More recently, NASA announced the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk mission, which will study Earth’s upper atmosphere using a sensor hosted aboard a commercial geostationary telecom spacecraft.

The Air Force, meanwhile, is exploring the possibility of dispersing its space-based capabilities among large numbers of smaller satellites, a concept known as disaggregation that could create numerous hosted payload opportunities.

“They realize that commercially hosted payloads is one of the tools in the toolbox of disaggregation,” Anhalt said of the Air Force’s leadership. But he noted that the Air Force’s space architecture rests on large, multimission satellites and that the service must separate out the requirements for these platforms to take full advantage of hosted payload opportunities.

This process is taking longer than some industry officials, Anhalt and Nickloy included, would like.

“The good news that I heard yesterday is that they’re starting to take action along those lines,” Nickloy said. “They’re going into architectural studies.”

Anhalt subsequently said he was encouraged by the number of hosted activities outlined in the Air Force’s 2014 budget request, which was released April 10. “This is all very encouraging,” Anhalt said via email April 17. “The Department of Defense has started to shift toward commercially leveraged solutions … we can clearly see this shift in the President’s 2014 budget.”

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...