Editorial: To Catch a Moving Train

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The U.S. Defense Department’s fast-fading opportunity to piggyback a military mission aboard Iridium Communications’ next-generation satellite constellation underscores the need for a formal mechanism and procedures by which government agencies, the Pentagon in particular, can identify and capitalize on brewing hosted payload opportunities.

Perhaps the biggest challenge associated with hosted payloads is that government and commercial entities operate on different time scales. Commercial satellite operators, for whom time is money, set and largely adhere to tight schedules for deploying new capabilities. Large government bureaucracies, on the other hand, barring a genuine emergency can rarely muster a relatively simple investment decision within the narrow opening that a commercial development program offers.

Since few commercial satellite operators can afford to put manufacturing programs on hold while awaiting a government commitment to get on board — never mind the arrival of an integration-ready payload — it’s likely that most such opportunities will be missed. Iridium, for example, must replace a constellation of some 66 low-orbiting satellites that were launched mainly in the late 1990s. An independent analysis has determined that the current Iridium fleet should last until 2017 or so, which puts the company on a relatively tight schedule for getting the Iridium Next replacement constellation built, launched aboard multiple rockets and then checked out on orbit.

Iridium has long made clear that hosting government payloads is part of the Iridium Next business plan. The company even reserved space and power aboard each of the satellites for hosted payloads, assigning the rights to market that real estate — for a price — to Orbital Sciences Corp., which is under contract to perform final assembly and integration of the spacecraft.

The fact that the Pentagon hasn’t jumped at the opportunity is not due to a lack of interest, according to Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch, who noted there were ideas for applications that would have taken up a significant portion if not all of the Iridium Next hosted payload capacity. He wasn’t specific, but one could easily envision leveraging the constellation to deploy orbital surveillance or space weather monitoring capabilities with global coverage for a very modest price.

The problem, he said, is the Pentagon’s massive procurement bureaucracy has yet to adapt to doing business this way. “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,” he said at a recent conference.

It would be easy to criticize the Pentagon for fumbling such a big and rare opportunity — another commercial satellite program of this scale isn’t likely to come along for another 10 to 15 years, if at all — but it also would be unfair; this was going to be a tough train to catch under any circumstances. Although Iridium’s plans for hosting government payloads have been known for years, it was not until mid-2010 that the company secured the financing to build the satellites and awarded the prime contract to Thales Alenia Space. Given Iridium’s end-of-2012 deadline for securing hosted payload commitments, the Pentagon effectively had some two-and-a-half years to design a program utilizing all or at least a significant portion of Iridium Next’s capacity, marshal the necessary resources and win approvals across the chain of command and from Congress. That’s probably asking too much; big government bureaucracies simply don’t move that quickly.

Mr. Desch remains hopeful of selling most of the Iridium Next hosted payload space to other U.S. government customers, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and even the Pentagon could still find a way to utilize at least some of the capacity, albeit on a much smaller scale than Iridium originally envisioned.

But if Iridium represents an elusive, once-in-a-decade opportunity, there are literally dozens of far more accessible opportunities to place payloads aboard commercial geostationary orbiting satellites, 20 or more of which are launched every year. Geostationary satellite owners have been pitching the hosted payload concept for years but to date have gotten only a handful of takers.

Established fixed satellite services providers have steady and predictable fleet replacement cycles and there are enough of them such that the government can count on multiple opportunities with similar characteristics each year.

 The Pentagon faces significant declines in its space budget in the coming years even as its demand for space-based services continues to grow. The White House, meanwhile, has made it official policy to leverage commercial space capabilities wherever possible. It is time to move beyond the lip service Pentagon officials have paid to the hosted payload concept and set up a program specifically designed to identify military needs — both experimental and operational — that could be met with payloads compatible with multiple commercial platforms that go into assembly in any given year.

Industry could help the cause by developing standard interfaces that government piggyback payloads could be designed to. That way, if a payload misses its targeted flight opportunity, another suitable ride will come along sooner rather than later. The Hosted Payload Alliance, an industry group created to educate prospective government customers on the topic, could play an important role in getting government and manufacturers to agree on common interface standards.

The current fleet replenishment cycle of the major geostationary satellite operators is winding down, but there still should be plenty of opportunities to exploit in the next few years. Certainly there will be no excuse for missing the next big fleet replenishment wave. The Iridium experience, by virtue of its high profile, is a wake-up call for the Defense Department to finally get serious about leveraging what to date has been an underutilized commercial space resource.

 

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Read on how space situational awareness will play a part in NEXT, visit OnOrbitWatch.com.