WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force awarded contracts to 14 space companies to facilitate the placement of military payloads aboard commercial satellites, a key step in the service’s ongoing exploration of alternative ways to deploy space-based capabilities.
Through the Hosted Payload Solutions program, HoPS for short, the Air Force is aiming to create a contracting vehicle to standardize the processes and interfaces for placing dedicated military capabilities aboard commercial satellites.
The purpose of the contract, the announcement said, “is to provide a rapid and flexible means for the government to acquire commercial hosting capabilities for government payloads.”
The awards, made by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which procures U.S. military space systems, are so-called indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts that together create a stable of prequalified companies. Contracts to support actual hosted payload projects would be awarded as task orders as the Air Force sees fit.
Industry officials have long said hosted payloads can provide the government more timely and lower cost access to space for certain capabilities. With the addition of these 14 companies, a mix of satellite operators and space hardware manufacturers, the government now has a range of options to choose from.
Although the expanded use of hosted payload arrangements is viewed by many as a no-brainer given the budget pressures the Air Force faces, getting the service, which traditionally has procured and operated its own dedicated satellites, to adopt this new way of doing business has proved challenging.
“When it comes to do doing something outside the norm, it was a huge challenge,” Janet Nickloy, director of strategy and business development at Harris Corp.’s Government Communications business unit and chairwoman of the Hosted Payload Alliance, said in a July 11 interview. “They’ve opened new doors.”
The Air Force’s July 10 announcement said the HoPS contracts have a potential combined value of up to $494 million. That amount of money would fund several missions, Nickloy said. A tertiary sensor, for example, might only take a small amount of that pot, but a heavier, more complex payload with greater power requirements could command a substantial chunk of the total.
But space companies are hopeful that with some early successes, the Defense Department could add more money to the program, she said.
The Air Force has warmed to the idea of hosted payloads in recent years and is studying several initiatives following the success of the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload mission that launched in September 2011.
Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has said repeatedly the Defense Department must consider hosted payloads as one way to help keep costs down. Dispersing government capabilities among commercial satellites would also improve the resiliency of the Air Force’s space architecture, a key tenet of Shelton’s long-term vision.
Still, the Air Force has been slower to embrace hosted payloads than many advocates of the concept would like. NASA, they note, has several science missions in the works that will fly as hosted payloads aboard commercial communications satellites.
Indeed, NASA missions are likely to be among the first to take advantage of the HoPS contracting vehicle, industry and Air Force officials have said.
The HoPS contract winners include commercial satellite operators such as Eutelsat, Intelsat General and SES Government Solutions; large hardware builders like Boeing and Lockheed Martin; and satellite manufacturers including Space Systems Loral and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. Also included among the winners were some lesser known companies such as Merging Excellence and Innovation Tech Inc.
The wide range of awardees shows the Air Force is embracing the diversity of thought in the industry, Nickloy said.
The Air Force received offers from 19 companies and responded to 14, the announcement said.
In future months, the Air Force will likely conduct a survey of upcoming commercial satellite launches that could potentially carry hosted payloads of various size, weight and power requirements, Nickloy said.