COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The biggest-ever opportunity for placing hosted payloads on a telecommunications satellite system may be partially lost because of slow-moving government bureaucracies, Iridium Communications Chief Executive Matthew J. Desch said April 13.

The second-generation Iridium Next constellation of 66 operational satellites in low Earth orbit is scheduled for launch starting in 2015. The company has reserved power and space on each satellite for payloads from third parties.

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There is no other opportunity on the market for piggyback payloads that approaches the size of the Iridium opportunity, nor is there likely to be one in the immediate future given the rarity of constellations like Iridium’s.

But despite the initial enthusiasm among government agencies, it now appears that the U.S. Department of Defense, seen as a big potential customer, may be unable to seize the occasion to place sensors on the Iridium system.

It is not for a lack of interest. Desch said U.S. military officials appear more enthusiastic than ever about the hosted payload opportunity, which is being promoted not only by Iridium but also by commercial satellite operators whose fleets are in higher, geostationary orbit.

“I am afraid this is going to be a very big thing in the next 10 years — and not, as it should be, in the next two or three years,” Desch said during a panel discussion here at the National Space Symposium. We will have [third-party] payloads on our satellites, but we probably will not fill up every slot, which is a shame.”

“This is a strange new way of doing business for most people,” Desch said, referring to satellite system users in the U.S. government, especially the Department of Defense. “The procurement process really has not yet adapted to it.”

David McGlade, chief executive of Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat, which operates a fleet of 53 commercial telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit, said he has seen “a pretty dramatic shift” in U.S. Defense Department attitudes on hosted payloads.

“For 95 percent of the capacity that goes into orbit, we think we have options” to offer for prospective third-party payloads, McGlade said. Intelsat plans to launch two satellites this year, five in 2012 and one in 2013.

Andrew Sukawaty, chief executive of mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat of London, said his company has placed some sort of hosted payload on all its satellites. The Inmarsat-3 satellites, in geostationary orbit, carried GPS navigation augmentation payloads. Inmarsat’s Alphasat satellite, to launch in 2013, has a payload financed by the 18-nation European Space Agency.

Clay Mowry, president of Arianespace Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of launch services provider Arianespace of Evry, France, said Arianespace has been able to accommodate customers with hosted payloads in short order.

Citing one example, he said Intelsat’s Galaxy 15 satellite, which included a navigation payload for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, took just 19 months from the payload’s integration to its launch aboard an Ariane 5 rocket.

In an April 13 interview, Desch said Iridium is still optimistic it will fill a good portion of the space set aside on its satellites for third-party payloads. The main problem remains Iridium’s hard deadline. Agreements must be concluded by the end of 2012, he said, to meet Iridium’s 2015-2017 launch dates. Even that date will miss the first batch of Iridium Next satellites.

But the likeliest candidates do not include the U.S. Defense Department, the agency that at one time had been considered among the most promising hosted payload customers.

“There were a lot of initial opportunities that would have taken the entire space we have allotted on the constellation,” Desch said. “Other opportunities want payloads that take up the whole space on only a few satellites, and some want a small amount of space on the whole constellation.”



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