PARIS — The first U.S. Air Force sensor to be launched as a hosted payload aboard a commercial telecommunications satellite is more than a year late because the Air Force underestimated the complexity of developing the sensor and mating it to its satellite host, Air Force and industry officials said Sept. 12.

The delays in developing the sensor, an experimental missile-launch tracker called the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP), added costs to the program and obliged the commercial satellite operator hosting CHIRP to switch the sensor from one satellite to another one planned for a later launch.

In a press briefing from the Los Angeles Air Force Base Space and Missile Systems Center’s Development Planning Directorate, Air Force and industry officials involved with CHIRP expressed confidence that they had learned the lessons of the pioneering effort.

CHIRP’s development and preparation for launch have been closely viewed by both the Air Force and the commercial telecommunications satellite industry as an indicator of whether hosted payloads can be made routine as the Air Force seeks to reduce satellite system costs.

Despite the development and delivery hiccups with CHIRP, these officials said they were confident that the hosted payload idea is too appealing not to be used on a regular basis, especially at a time of likely defense budget cutbacks — so long as precautions are taken early in program development.

Luxembourg-based SES originally agreed to host CHIRP in mid-2008, with a 2010 launch scheduled. SES selected a satellite on order from Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., to carry the CHIRP mission, which is designed to use its staring wide-field-of-view telescope to test means to spot and report missile launches.

SES had signed what was intended to be a three-year contract with the Air Force valued at $65 million. The sensor’s delays, and the fact that SES had to scrap plans to place it on one satellite in favor of another, have swelled the contract value to $82.5 million, Doug Loverro, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center executive director, said during the Sept. 12 briefing.

Science Applications International Corp. of McLean, Va., built CHIRP from existing Air Force designs for an infrared missile-detection system.

CHIRP is now scheduled for a late-September launch on the SES-2 satellite, also built by Orbital, aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket operated from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.

Loverro said SES’s decision to have a backup satellite ready in the event the nominal CHIRP host satellite had to be put into operation proved crucial to the program’s success. He said that in the future, the Air Force will take greater care to develop payloads far enough in advance so that development-related delays do not cause delays in the launch of the host satellite.

Commercial satellite operators have almost unanimously endorsed the idea of hosted payloads. But they warn that getting a satellite launched and generating revenue are their overriding concerns. Waiting months for a hosted payload to clear the Air Force’s often laborious verifications and clearances, they said, usually will not be possible.

Tip Osterthaler, president of SES Government Solutions, a U.S. division of SES, said during the conference call that CHIRP’s development has cost the Air Force just 15 percent of what it would have paid to launch the same sensor on a dedicated satellite.

What Osterthaler called SES’s “pre-engineered off-ramp” to move CHIRP from one satellite to another will not always be available to operators agreeing to place U.S. government sensors on commercial telecommunications satellites. Loverro suggested that this kind of flexibility might be necessary for the hosted payload idea to deliver on its promise.

Orbital Sciences Corp. officials have said that the CHIRP program for their company has been a money-loser, in part because Orbital signed a firm, fixed-price contract for the work and then ran into difficulties developing the adaptor that will mate CHIRP to the SES satellite.

Gregg Burgess, Orbital’s vice president of national security programs, said Orbital would urge the Air Force, in future hosted payload programs, “to fund development of the payload well in advance of when they want the payload.”

Orbital has said that despite the development cost of the CHIRP effort, the company now has a payload adaptor that can be used for future hosted payloads. Orbital has since invested $10 million to reserve the right to find hosted payload opportunities to be placed on the next generation of Iridium mobile communications satellites, a 72-spacecraft constellation in low Earth orbit.

In a presentation here Sept. 12 at the World Satellite Business Week conference, Kathy Shockey, vice president of research and business development at commercial satellite builder Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif., said Loral estimates that nine commercial telecommunications satellites per year built by U.S. and European manufacturers could be made available for hosted payloads seeking a ride to geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

Burgess cautioned that most commercial telecommunications satellites are designed to be able to launch on at least two of the world’s principal commercial rockets. The two dominant commercial launch providers now are Evry, France-based Arianespace and International Launch Services (ILS) of McLean, Va.

ILS is owned by the Russian government-controlled Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow, which builds the Russian Proton heavy-lift rockets marketed worldwide by ILS.

Burgess said the Air Force accepted CHIRP’s launch aboard a European rocket, but would have hesitated before permitting its launch aboard an ILS Proton vehicle, which is operated from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Loverro said that with a little extra effort, the Air Force CHIRP team might have secured U.S. Air Force approval for an ILS Proton launch as well. But he added: “It would not have been our first choice.”

Current U.S. government policy permits U.S. government payloads to launch on non-U.S. rockets only if the payloads are experimental in nature, as is CHIRP. Loverro said the next step will be to secure a decision to allow operational payloads to use non-U.S. rockets.

In a statement issued Sept. 14, the Air For Space and Missile Systems Center said, “[t]he policy currently in place is limited to military experimental hosted payloads and in the future there will have to be a Congressional campaign to allow operational hosted payloads on a foreign U.S. launcher for commercial opportunities.

“This does not address all U.S. government experimental payloads. The new, much anticipated Arianespace launch with the first U.S. commercially hosted payload is the beginning of a new way of ridesharing to space,” the statement concludes.

In recent years, U.S.-built rockets have been virtually absent from the commercial launch landscape because of their price and what some satellite owners view as their lack of availability.


Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.