he U.S. Air Force’s plan to fly an experimental missile warning sensor aboard a communications satellite owned by SES Americom is a hopeful sign of the Pentagon’s growing willingness and flexibility to take advantage of commercial flight opportunities when they present themselves.


The benefits to both sides from such arrangements are obvious: the government gets a low cost way to put a payload into space and the satellite operator picks up a few bucks by providing the host platform. With the commercial satellite communications sector enjoying a strong market in most parts of the world and responding with investments in new capacity, partnership opportunities are abundant. This won’t always be the case.


Global satellite fleet operator Intelsat has been a leader in pushing the so-called hosted payload concept and in 2007 entered into a pioneering agreement under which it will fly an Internet router supplied by technology giant Cisco Systems aboard one of its satellites on behalf of the U.S. Defense Department. The Internet Router in Space experiment, if successful, will give the military hands-on experience with a key technology envisioned for future satellite platforms including the Transformational Satellite Communications system.


It appears now that the military is fully embracing the idea, and not just for experimentation purposes. The U.S. Navy, for example, is pursuing an arrangement under which it would pay a commercial satellite operator to host an ultra high frequency (UHF) payload to prevent a gap in the Pentagon’s mobile communications capability as its existing fleet of UHF Follow On satellites ages. One can envision several UHF payloads ultimately being launched aboard commercial satellites, not only to maintain full global coverage until the Navy’s UHF Follow On replacement, the Mobile User Objective System, is deployed next decade but also to augment the new constellation.


The pending deal with SES Americom, meanwhile, demonstrates not only the Air Force’s ability to be flexible but also that hosted payload applications are not necessarily limited to communications. In this case the Air Force, after shelving plans unveiled just last year to launch a dedicated satellite to demonstrate advanced focal plane technology for missile warning, adopted a new approach: It took an experimental sensor originally intended for ground testing and gave the contractor another $31.2 million – not exactly pocket change, but not enough to break the bank either – to qualify the hardware for space. Plans now call for flying perhaps one of the sensor’s five telescopes aboard an SES satellite built by Orbital Sciences Corp.


Civil space and meteorological agencies, both in the United States and elsewhere, also should be on the lookout for hosted payload opportunities. For U.S. agencies such as NASA or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commercial satellites could be the ticket to low-cost testing of advanced sensors and perhaps even augmenting weather coverage. Countries with limited resources conceivably could have their own independent severe-storm monitoring capabilities via sensors hosted aboard commercial satellites.


For satellite operators, the benefits go beyond collecting rent in return for space and resources aboard their satellites. To cite one example, companies interested in testing a new regional market or new type of service could reduce their financial exposure by hosting government payloads. These types of deals are riskier – one collapsed several years back after the industry partner was unable to come up with its share of the financing – but the government can always adopt a cautious approach that steers clear of commercial ventures involving unique satellites, orbits or applications.


In an interview that appears in this issue
of Space News, Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, referred to partnerships with industry among several non-traditional alternatives for getting military capabilities into space. He also cited partnerships with allies like the U.S.-Australian
deal on the Wideband Global Satcom program as well as more extensive use of the secondary payload adapter designed for the Air Force’s current launch vehicle fleet.


These are not brand new ideas, but there now appears to be some concrete evidence that the military is becoming more receptive to putting them into practice. Gen. Kehler’s interest is encouraging in this regard; hopefully it will prove contagious.