Editorial: Cause for Optimism on Hosted Payloads

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The U.S. government has been slow to take advantage of the hosted payload opportunities provided by a vibrant commercial satellite sector, but there are some encouraging signs. The latest is the $230 million contract under which Space Systems/Loral will arrange to fly a NASA laser telecommunications experiment aboard an as-yet-unspecified satellite.

NASA’s 175-kilogram Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will be placed on a Loral-built spacecraft to be launched as soon as 2016 to an orbital slot within view of a ground station in California or Hawaii. The company, in recent years the most successful of U.S. commercial satellite makers, will be responsible for negotiating the LCRD hosting agreement with the satellite’s buyer.

The U.S. Air Force, meanwhile, is requesting funds next year for work on a successor to the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP), an experimental missile warning sensor launched last year aboard the SES-2 commercial telecom satellite. The sensor, originally designed for ground-based experiments, has since observed several rocket launches from geostationary orbit, and the follow-on would press the capability demonstration even further.

The Air Force and NASA still have a ways to go in terms of fully embracing this money-saving approach to putting capability on orbit. Skeptical industry officials are right to caution against premature declarations of victory in the wake of CHIRP’s success — the Air Force has no budget line for hosted payloads and no clear path for integrating them into its space architecture, for example.

The LCRD and CHIRP follow-on experiments nonetheless represent tangible progress on the hosted payload front, offering legitimate hope of bigger and better things to come. NASA and the Air Force are to be commended for pressing ahead with these initiatives in an extremely difficult budgetary environment, and Congress should reward them with its full support.