In any given year, companies worldwide launch about two dozen commercial communications satellites. These spacecraft, some weighing more than 6,000 kilograms, are distributed across geosynchronous orbit, providing a wide range of services, from relaying television programming to broadcasters and individual customers to providing critical links for credit card and banking systems.

These spacecraft, though, have the capability to perform another role as well. Many spacecraft have, or can make room for in the design process, additional payload capacity in the form of mass, volume, and power. This capacity can be used to host additional, primarily government, payloads, such as communications transponders, Earth observation cameras, or technology demonstrations. These “hosted payloads,” as they’re called, can provide the government with capabilities at a fraction of the cost of a dedicated satellite, and also provide satellite operators with an ancillary source of revenue.

Yet, for all the advantages that hosted payloads would offer, most commercial GEO communications satellites today launch without hosted payloads. As government and industry representatives indicated at a pair of recent meetings, that’s due to a variety of issues, from contractual to cultural. Yet, there are signs that hosted payloads are winning broader acceptance at a time when government agencies are increasingly pressed to do more with less funding.

“One of the things I’ve begun to see in the last year is that we are making some progress” in making use of hosted payloads, said Douglas Loverro, executive director of the US Air Force’s Space and Missiles Systems Center (SMC), in a keynote presentation at the Hosted Payload Summit in Washington, DC, last month. In the past, he said, the Defense Department came up with any number of reasons why it didn’t use hosted payloads. “Little by little, these reasons have started to fall away.”

Loverro cited several signs of progress towards greater acceptance of hosted payloads, from budget lines for hosted payload projects in the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal to the formation of a Hosted Payload Office within SMC to better coordinate hosted payload opportunities across the government, an initiative he said SMC did on its own. “SMC formed the Hosted Payload Office because it was the right thing to do. And even more important than that, no one told us to stop,” he said. “The biggest thing you find out in the Department of Defense as you go along is that if people disagree with you, you’ll be told to stop immediately.”

There have also been mission successes that have changed perceptions about the utility of hosted payloads. Last September, the Air Force launched the Commercially Hosted InfraRed Payload (CHIRP) as a hosted payload on a communications satellite owned by SES. CHIRP is designed to test a new infrared sensor for use by future missile warning systems. Loverro showed some of the first unclassified images from CHIRP: the “really crummy” images are all that can be shown to the public, he said, but it shows that the potential operational capability of such payloads. “Not only can we go ahead and use hosted payloads and get payloads up in space that way, but we can actually do mission impacting things with them.”

Loverro said the Air Force planned to build on the success of CHIRP with a follow-on program called CHIRP+, again using hosted payloads to test infrared sensors. That effort, though, has run into a roadblock in Congress, where the House Appropriations Committee deleted funding for the hosted payload effort in favor of additional spending on ground segment technologies. He noted that CHIRP+ has support in the Senate, as well as House Armed Services Committee, but acknowledged the appropriators’ move was a sign hosted payloads haven’t found uniform acceptance yet. “This mark tells us something,” he said. “It tells us that we haven’t quite sold the entire community yet on the promise of hosted payloads.”

Another setback for hosted payloads in the last year was the failure of the Defense Department to work out a deal with Iridium, which has proposed adding hosted payloads to its next-generation constellation of low Earth orbit communications satellites. It provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put payloads on a system that can provide global coverage. But a deal to take advantage of that system fell through, he said.

The benefits of hosted payloads, though, remain compelling enough for both satellite operators and potential customers to work through the challenges. That’s particularly the case in using hosted payloads for communications, where government agencies are already used to purchasing satellite bandwidth commercially. Hosted payloads extend that capability to frequencies like UHF and X-band that are typically not available on the commercial market, unlike the more common C- and Ku-bands.

In one example, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) placed a hosted payload on a commercial satellite, Intelsat 22, to provide UHF communications for Australian and American military forces deployed in the Middle East and Afghanistan. That effort went from contract to capability in orbit in 35 months, said Don Brown, the vice president of hosted payload programs at Intelsat General. That arrangement required “an extraordinary bit of creative contracting” to add the UHF payload, provided by the ADF, onto the satellite, he said.

“The minister of defence for Australia said he saved over $150 million over alternative approaches,” Brown said of the UHF hosted payload. An independent analysis of the project, he added, concluded the hosted payload approach was 50% more effective economically than flying the payload as its own satellite, and 180% more efficient than leasing the capacity—assuming the capacity was available at all to lease.

Success stores like the ADF UHF payload and CHIRP are starting to set precedents for greater use of hosted payloads, as well as smoothing over the various obstacles that have prevented wider use of them in the past. “We need to be waves on the beach,” said Cunningham. “CHIRP was that first wave, not without its problems, but it was the first wave to crash into the bureaucracy of the United States government. We need to keep it up. We need to get some quick wins.” 

Hosted payloads, said Loverro, “are really beginning to be viewed as a normal part of our future.” That’s a far cry, he said, from just four years ago, when people first started to discuss use of hosted payloads for Defense Department payloads. “It’s no longer can we do it, it’s when are we going to do it.”

“We still have a lot of work to do,” he cautioned, citing the problems with CHIRP+ funding and the failed Iridium deal. “It’s not there yet. It’s on the precipice.”

“Failure to find a deal showed something’s not working,” he said. The problem wasn’t just finding the money for a deal, but a lack of a contract vehicle to enable a deal. “We didn’t have the right contractual relationships established to make this easy, to make it not a Herculean effort.” This has led to plans by SMC to let indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts to make it easier to take advantage of hosted payload opportunities when they arise. “This is the first step in really moving towards a normal, accessible, and repeatable hosted payload arrangement for this.”

Contractual issues aren’t the only problem towards greater use of hosted payloads. “There are tons of hurdles” hosted payloads face, said Pete Cunningham, also of SMC, during a session on hosted payloads at AIAA Space 2012 in Pasadena, California, last month. These issues include acquiring spectrum needed for payload communications, export control, use of non-US launch vehicles, and cybersecurity and information assurance. “These are really tough problems that seem easy to solve, but we need some assistance on this.”

CHIRP had to deal with a number of those issues, said Tim Deaver of SES Government Solutions during the AIAA Space 2012 panel. One issue was launch licensing, as the satellite that was hosting CHIRP, SES-2, launched on an Ariane 5. “It makes it a little more complicated, and in some cases more costly,” to incorporate a hosted payload on a commercial satellite, he said of the licensing process. He added there would have been a “significant additional charge” if they chose to launch the satellite on a Russian Proton.

Jeff Foust ( is the editor and publisher of The Space Review. He also operates the web site and the Space Politics and NewSpace Journal weblogs. Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not represent the official positions of any organization or company, including the Futron Corporation, the author’s employer.