WASHINGTON — With the size of future U.S. government budgets for space systems increasingly uncertain, commercial satellite companies are betting on greater cooperation with the government and planning ways to include hosted government payloads on future satellites.
Satellite operator Intelsat of Bermuda and Washington has led the way, launching in 2005 an L-band payload for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration aboard its Galaxy 15 satellite. The company also signed a deal in April 2007 with U.S. Strategic Command to launch an Internet Router in Space demonstration payload aboard the Intelsat-14 satellite in mid-2009. Intelsat now says it has eight planned satellites that could host government payloads.
Government Services (AGS) of McLean, Va., got its first hit in the hosted payload game in June when it signed a $65 million contract with the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center to host an experimental missile warning sensor aboard an Orbital Sciences-built communications satellite that will launch in 2010. AGS is a subsidiary of SES Americom, which is owned by satellite operator SES of Luxembourg.
The AGS program, called the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP), will utilize a Science Applications International Corp. sensor that was designed for the Air Force’s Alternative Infrared Satellite System, now known as the Third Generation Infrared System. The host satellite’s geostationary orbit will keep it directly over the United States, giving the sensor a constant view of a wide swath of Earth.
“The deal we got with SES Americom was fantastic,” Gary Payton, undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs said Sept. 25. “We were able to get a fourth-of-the-world view on orbit at geosynchronous, and a year or maybe 18 months of downlink data from that sensor for less than the cost of a launch vehicle.”
The CHIRP program is an example of a lot of things coming together at just the right time with a little bit of luck, AGS Senior Vice President Robert Demers said. Satellite operators typically take about 36 months from the time they decide on a particular satellite until the satellite is launched.
“There was a little bit of luck there, and some timing, and a lot of hard work as well that brought these two mature programs together and sent them off. If you had an ideal way to do it, that would not be it.”
All of the details of CHIRP had to be hammered out in the first six months of that 36-month period, but ideally those details would have been done in the 18 months before that period, Demers said.
“The key is to try to find a spot on the continuum that is flexible enough for the provider and flexible enough for the customer to come together on a payload in a synergistic way, where the government is part of the business case,” Demers said. “Do it too far down the road, and you will be trying to jam the proverbial square peg into a round hole.”
SES plans on launching three or four communications satellites per year until 2014, and hosted payloads will be considered for each of those, a factor that only recently has entered into the equation for the company’s decision makers. NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Defense Department all have expressed interest in putting payloads on commercial satellites, Demers said.
The next hosted-payload opportunity coming down the pipe could be from the U.S. Navy, which plans to put an ultra-high frequency payload on a commercial satellite to avoid a gap in coverage. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command issued a request for information in March that said it planned to award a contract for the payload in November, but to date, no request for proposals has been issued. An explanation for the delay was not available by press time for this issue.
While all of the hosted payload arrangements to date have been aboard geosynchronous satellites, Iridium Satellite LLC of Bethesda, Md., is offering the government an opportunity to put dozens of payloads aboard communications satellites in low Earth orbit.
The company’s second-generation constellation, called Iridium Next, will start launching in 2013 and consist of 66 satellites, each capable of hosting an additional 50-kilogram payload. Though the company has no deals in place yet, it is considering many proposals, including some that would put a payload on each satellite in the constellation.
“We are offering the government an unprecedented platform for Earth observation,” Don Thoma, Iridium’s executive president for marketing and secondary payloads, said. “From any spot on Earth, [these payloads] will be able to bring information back in real-time.”