Hosted payloads have, for several years, offered the promise of more-frequent and less-expensive flight opportunities for government customers and additional revenue streams for commercial satellite operators and manufacturers. That potential, though, has yet to be fully realized, as demonstrated by the paucity of hosted payload missions that have flown or are in development. Dealing with technical, contractual and other issues, as well as simply doing effective matchmaking between payloads and hosts, has proved to be a major challenge.

Last year, Iridium announced a new approach to hosted payloads. Under its Iridium Prime program, the company would offer space on additional copies of its Iridium Next spacecraft currently under development by Thales Alenia Space. Rather than the communications payload normally incorporated into these satellites, customers could instead install their own payloads. This would provide users with much greater mass, power and volume allocations than typically available for hosted payloads. That should make it more attractive to customers — at least in theory.

The person responsible for turning that potential into a sustainable business is David Anhalt, Iridium vice president and general manager of Iridium Prime. Anhalt, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, is no stranger to hosted payloads. He worked for several years at Orbital Sciences Corp., where he managed one of the first commercial hosted payload missions. Known as the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, or CHIRP, the pioneering 2011 mission entailed flying an experimental missile-warning sensor for the Air Force aboard a commercial communications satellite Orbital Sciences built for fleet operator SES.

Anhalt later served as vice president of U.S. government solutions at satellite builder Space Systems/Loral, working on hosted payload opportunities there.

Anhalt also has been involved with the Hosted Payload Alliance, the organization of satellite operators, manufacturers and launch services providers established in 2011 to advocate for greater use of hosted payloads by government agencies. He was the organization’s first vice chairman and currently serves as its secretary.

Anhalt spoke with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust in October at the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto.

Given that Iridium Prime is offering an entire spacecraft to customers, should this really be considered a hosted payload service?

It is different in that regard. Hosted payloads have, up until now, been considered to be secondary payloads that have limited rights in context with the primary mission. Here, we’re using that same commodity bus as Iridium Next without the L-band main mission payload and without the hosted payload that happens to be aboard Iridium Next. The platform is essentially a commodity bus, but with the intersatellite links that characterize the Iridium satellite system.

This is a payload accommodation service, without hosted being in front of it. Nevertheless, payloads that come aboard will be attached with standard interfaces, and there could be more than one payload customer, which will be advantageous to payload customers. Sharing those costs is a hosting arrangement in the classic sense, trying to synchronize the delivery of multiple payloads that would share a similar ride. That’s kind of like rideshare for rockets, where a number of small satellites might like to show up for the same launch. In this case, a number of payloads show up for the same bus platform.

If this is a hosted payload program, it’s hosting the payloads on the Iridium network. I think that’s what makes this a unique type of hosted payload program.

What sort of response have you received so far from potential customers?

A lot of good interest. We’re tracking more than two dozen different possible opportunities. They include commercial customers, both international and domestic, as well as civil and national security government customers, also both international and domestic.

What are they planning to use the satellites for?

Earth observation and communications missions are the two biggest areas. We had interest at one time for an astronomical observatory, a telescope that was going to look at activities in the galaxy. It ended up not being chosen in a NASA down-select so it’s not on our list currently.

Can you customize the spacecraft if, for example, a customer wants more power?

We’ll start with our standard bus, with a minimum of nonrecurring expense. However, we’re not ruling out nonrecurring expense. We’re purchasing the bus from Thales Alenia Space, who will have overseen the development of 81 of these spacecraft. So they’re quite familiar with the spacecraft, and they’ll work with us as necessary to make any changes if a mission needs that and it’s an affordable option.

How will the contractual arrangements work with customers?

Our basic approach is to have a hosting agreement and a data services and transmission agreement. The hosting agreement covers everything before launch as well as early operations and checkout, so it includes the bus, assembly and testing, the purchase of the launch vehicle, and the launch and early operations. After we’re on orbit, there’ll be an agreement on data services and operations fees. That will be an annual change, based on how much data is used.

What is the minimum number of Iridium Prime satellites you can support?

The main consideration is how we launch them. We do have two launch vehicles that are certified for this particular bus: the Dnepr and the Falcon 9. So in the case of one-off missions, or a small number of missions, the Dnepr can launch two at a time. Otherwise, if we have a customer who needs several in the same plane or adjacent planes, we can launch 10 at a time with the Falcon 9.

And the maximum?

We think we can accommodate as many as six new orbit planes, with 11 satellites per orbit plane. That would be a new, second global constellation.

When would you be ready to start launching Iridium Prime satellites?

Not earlier than the fourth quarter of calendar year 2017. We want to first establish the Iridium Next constellation, a total of 72 satellites. Then the Iridium Primes will be in separate orbital planes, after the first six orbital planes.

Why do you think it has been so difficult overall to fly hosted payloads?

Three years ago, there were a number of reasons that it was difficult. Some of those reasons have subsided. First of all, we have presidential policy that is very helpful in this regard. In November of last year, the new National Space Transportation Policy finally stated that if it was a government payload hosted on a commercial spacecraft, they would not need an exception to the policy requiring government payloads being launched on American launch vehicles.

The other thing was to have the kinds of contract mechanisms with the government that we can use. This past spring, the government announced 14 winners of the Hosted Payload Solutions (HoPS) contract that the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center solicited. So there is now a standing agreement with terms and conditions laid out so that government can reach out to industry and get these types of services.

What issues remain today?

There are still some remaining challenges that involve trying to synchronize the hosted payloads to the rides. That is, finding the right kinds of hosts going to the right locations for payloads seeking those rides. So a lot of tension has been placed on trying to forecast what those rides are.

Is there a need for standard interfaces for hosted payloads in general?

I look at that as being part of the blocking and tackling of any space mission. You have to understand the data interfaces, the mechanical interfaces and so forth. Any spacecraft manufacturer can handle those kinds of problems and write the interface control documents needed to do that. Still, it behooves government agencies that wish to do hosting to consider doing a study in advance, so that they can understand how to make their payload for that particular mission as hostable as it can be on a commercial spacecraft.

And we’re seeing work along those lines. The first major contract that came from HoPS was for NASA’s Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution mission. Space Systems/Loral, Boeing and Orbital Sciences were chosen to do studies to see how they accommodate that particular sensor, in time so that any adjustments to the payload can be made. Then there will be another competition to decide who is going to carry it.

When does the window of opportunity close for Iridium Prime?

We’d like to have contracts in place before the assembly line for Iridium Next is complete. Some time in the year 2015, 2016 or early 2017, we need contracts to keep the momentum. So we’re anticipating studies that would lead to major contracts in the 2015 time frame. We expect to be under contract for real hosted payload missions in 2016 and beyond. That will be in time to keep product in the loop while we’re still manufacturing spacecraft for Iridium Next.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...