Work on Missile Warning Sensors Could Lead to CHIRP Follow-on Mission

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is seeking $29 million next year for work on missile warning sensor technology that eventually could be demonstrated aboard a dedicated small satellite or as a hosted payload aboard a commercial satellite, according to budget justification documents.

The effort, which could lead to a follow-on to the successful Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) mission that launched in September 2011, is one of multiple potential hosted payload initiatives contained in the Air Force’s request. The service also will continue exploring hosted payload opportunities in protected communications and weather, budget documents show.

Advocates of using excess mass and power capacity aboard commercial satellites to host payloads with separate missions — government or commercial — say the Air Force has been slow to embrace the concept and thus has missed opportunities to field low-cost space capabilities. NASA, by contrast, has several firm hosted payload missions on the planning board.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles is preparing a contracting vehicle to facilitate the use of hosted payloads opportunities and expects to issue a formal request for proposals in May, with contract awards to follow in December, according to Col. Scott Beidleman, SMC’s director of development planning. In a keynote address at an April 9 workshop organized by the Hosted Payload Alliance, an industry group that promotes dialog with prospective government customers, Beidleman said the contracting vehicle had to clear a gauntlet of bureaucratic hoops before winning final approval.

”Today, the initial trade space for nearly every architectural solution in most mission areas contains concepts for using hosted payloads in some capacity,” Beidleman said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided to SpaceNews. He specifically cited wide-field-of-view infrared sensors, whose primary application is missile warning, space-environment monitoring, and protected tactical communications as hosted payload opportunities.

Janet Nickloy, who chairs the Hosted Payload Alliance board, said the Air Force’s contracting vehicle, coupled with service’s ongoing space architecture studies, bodes well for the future of the hosted payload market. But in an email, Nickloy was less sanguine about the near term, saying the Air Force’s planned hosted payload contract awards for 2014 will be modest in dollar terms.

Nickloy is director of aerospace mission solutions in the Government Communications Systems business unit of Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla.

According to the budget justification documents, the Air Force’s $936 million request for its Space Based Infrared System for missile warning includes $29 million in so-called Space Modernization Initiative funding hosted payload activities. These include continuing work on a prototype wide-field-of-view staring sensor that could fly on a dedicated small satellite platform or as a hosted payload. The Air Force has $26 million budgeted for that effort this year.

Also included in the request is $17 million for design studies geared toward evolutionary upgrades to the service’s so-called overhead persistent infrared surveillance architecture, whose primary mission is missile warning. As part of these studies, the Air Force will examine “international, commercial, or other rideshare opportunities” for an on-orbit demonstration of a wide-field-of-view sensor, the documents say.

The Air Force is also interested in using hosted payloads for protected communications, according to the budget documents. Currently the Air Force’s most secure communications traffic is carried aboard the Advanced Extremely High Frequency and legacy Milstar satellites, which serve both strategic and tactical forces.

Industry views secure tactical communications as ripe for hosted payload solutions due primarily to the fact that this mission does not have a firm requirement for nuclear radiation hardening. The ability to operate in a nuclear war environment is only required for strategic communications systems and is a major cost driver on the Advanced Extremely High Frequency program.

The Air Force’s $652 million request for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency program next year includes $17.75 million in Space Modernization Initiative funding for “design for affordability” studies on various elements of the architecture, including “small protected tactical hosted payloads.” The companies under contract for the studies are Boeing, Space Systems/Loral, Raytheon and L3 Communications-West, according to the budget documents.

Lockheed Martin is prime contractor on the Advanced Extremely High Frequency program. Northrop Grumman Aerospace is a major subcontractor.

The request also includes $2 million to develop design concepts for a hosted payload mission to demonstrate V- and W-band communications in geostationary orbit, according to the budget documents. The Air Force intends to release a request for proposals next year for risk reduction studies of the mission, which would be led by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the documents say.

According to a request for information posted Feb. 12 on the Federal Business Opportunities website, the Air Force is hoping to collect between 36 and 60 months’ worth of mission data at multiple ground sites in the United States. “For the approach under consideration, the satellite operator (host provider) would be responsible for procuring or developing the beacon-type instrument, providing integration to the host spacecraft, procuring or providing launch and supporting on orbit operation … for the duration of the experiment,” the notice said.

The government is conducting an analysis of alternatives for the beacon specifications, but the Air Force currently anticipates a 10-kilogram instrument requiring 50 watts of power and costing around $10 million, the notice said. The proposed experiment would not leverage the hosted payload contracting vehicle being prepared by SMC, the document said.

Danielle Babbitt, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Research Laboratory, did not respond by press time to a request for more details of the proposed experiment.