Editorial: Concept Validation

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The successful launch Sept. 21 of the SES-2 telecommunications satellite carrying an experimental missile warning sensor for the U.S. Air Force caps a pioneering effort that illustrates both the promise and challenges associated with hosting government payloads aboard commercial spacecraft.

Execution of the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) program didn’t go as smoothly as envisioned — the sensor was delayed; everything cost more than expected — but overcoming adversity is what being a trailblazer is all about. Future hosted payload arrangements will benefit from the experience, provided government and industry officials heed its lessons and adapt accordingly.

CHIRP is not the first government mission to piggyback on a privately owned satellite, but it differed from its predecessors in one important respect: The payload is a remote sensing instrument, whereas previous hosted payload arrangements featured telecom-related missions. In addition, the CHIRP technology and application are militarily sensitive, which tends to be a limiting factor when it comes to selecting a launcher for a host satellite. Indeed, U.S. military officials likely would have balked at flying CHIRPS on a Russian Proton or Russian-Ukrainian Sea Launch rocket, which together with Europe’s Ariane 5 loft the bulk of the world’s commercial geostationary orbiting satellites. SES-2 wound up launching atop an Ariane 5 but even that option could have proved problematic had CHIRP been an operational rather than experimental payload given the longstanding U.S. policy of flying government-funded payloads aboard American rockets.

The Air Force’s contract with SES to host the CHIRP sensor, originally valued at $65 million, grew to $82.5 million, largely as a result of developmental delays. Cost growth of nearly 27 percent certainly isn’t ideal — even considering the recent track record of space programs — but the Air Force still would have spent far more money had it used a dedicated spacecraft and launcher to fly the sensor.

CHIRP originally was to be hosted by the SES-3 satellite but was not ready in time to meet that spacecraft’s business-driven schedule. It is fortunate for the Air Force that a similar spacecraft in SES-2 was in the construction pipeline — both were part of a multiple satellite order by SES — with a better fitting launch schedule.

Both satellites were built by Orbital Sciences Corp., which had responsibility for integrating the CHIRP payload. Orbital says it lost money on the fixed-price deal, but the company did get a special adapter that can be used to mate future hosted payloads to its satellites. Consider the loss to be an investment with potential to pay off down the road.

Hosted payload arrangements can come in all shapes and sizes, and not all will present the challenges associated with CHIRP. But if the military wants to take full advantage of the myriad opportunities available to deploy capabilities aboard commercial satellites — and it should given what looks to be a dearth of funding in the coming years for developing new space systems and applications — it can use that mission as a basis for establishing procedures and guidelines for hosted payload arrangements.

For example, if the government payload is experimental or involves new technology, delays must be assumed. Because commercial satellite operators typically cannot afford to wait until a hosted payload is ready, planners would be wise to pair instruments or experiments involving new technology with satellites being built as part of bulk orders. That way, if the payload misses its ride on one satellite it can be mated relatively easily with a subsequent satellite in the series, as happened with CHIRP.

Perhaps most importantly, government agencies like the Pentagon and NASA should work with the White House and Congress to update U.S. launch policy to facilitate hosted payload arrangements. The current fly-American policy for government space hardware fails to account for the fact that the majority of commercial satellites today are launched aboard non-U.S. rockets. Space Exploration Technologies is the only U.S. company aggressively pursuing commercial contracts, but large geostationary satellites are beyond its current reach and it remains to be seen how much commercial business it can handle in the next several years given its demanding government manifest. At any rate, commercial satellite owners typically design their systems so as to have two or more launch options, at least one of which necessarily will be a non-U.S. rocket.

The space transportation policy update being drafted by the White House should relax the fly-America rules to, at minimum, permit operational hosted payloads to launch on European rockets without special permission. The Pentagon also must re-evaluate its sensitivities regarding launches of certain hosted payloads aboard Russian rockets: Satellite owners are less likely to accommodate government instruments if doing so ties their hands when it comes to launch-vehicle selection.

Nothing is ever as easy as advocates make it out to be and hosted payloads are no exception. But CHIRP as a real-world example of what can go wrong in a hosted payload arrangement has done far more to validate than discredit the concept.