Commentary | Realizing the Promise of Hosted Payloads

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Commercially hosted payloads — flying government payloads as secondary missions on commercial satellites — have intrigued the minds of government decision-makers for some time. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has pursued two hosted payloads: the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload and the Internet Router in Space. While they show promise, neither has created enough interest to tip the scales in favor of the idea becoming a regular practice. At the same time, the White House’s newest National Space Policy and the Pentagon’s emphasis on “efficiencies” have fostered more interest and momentum in hosted payloads.

Put simply, the future of hosted payloads provides great opportunity to both industry and the government.

They offer the government a greater number of options from operational and business perspectives. They offer diversification of government architectures and capabilities, while increasing survivability and making it harder for an enemy to eliminate our space capabilities. For industry, they create business opportunities outside of typical government customers and ease market entry for new players.

Despite this interest, don’t expect many hosted payloads to darken our skies soon. Questions remain to be answered. The core barriers and obstacles to hosted payloads are cultural, not technical. Government bureaucracies are not designed to change. They seek comfort, stability and control. The space community is no different. Ultimately, DoD wants assured reliability of hosted payload capabilities, while industry wants a profitable business model.

In order to make hosted payloads a reality, government and industry must engage and put into place a workable framework. A dialogue between government and industry should focus on the following things:

  • Getting the government to give up ownership and accept a new concept will be more difficult than most outsiders understand. But flying demonstration hosted payloads and developing a robust modeling and simulations capability should reduce risk while warming the operations community to the idea. Step-by-step progress will prove valuable and comfortable to government organizations.
  • Of course, proponents of hosted payloads should be careful to not over-promise. Hosted payloads are not a universal solution to government’s space interests. Grand visions for the future and failure to fulfill objectives of hosted payload initiatives would end up creating far more skeptics than supporters. The community should recognize that hosted payloads are not likely to offer what the space community calls exquisite capabilities, such as those found on the National Reconnaissance Office’s most sophisticated satellites. We should have the right expectations.
  • Standards and solutions for cybersecurity and information assurance must be established before the government can have confidence in and accept dependence upon hosted payloads for intelligence and other national security operations.
  • Government must explore new potential business models, understand how the business cases may work, and detail the business practices that industry will follow. Until this happens, commercial industry will remain leery. Additionally, industry and the government need to develop a clearer idea of what is the right mix of government-owned, commercially owned, government-operated and commercially operated models.
  • Concepts of operations must be developed by mission area. Among the issues that need sorting out are disaggregation for each mission and the architectural balance between big satellites, small free-flyers and hosted payloads. As buying big satellites often leaves us with capability gaps, so will constellations based solely on small free-flyers or hosted payloads. Understanding the contribution of each, by mission area, and developing architectural balance will best satisfy combatant commanders and the intelligence community. Additionally, operational problems with hosted payloads remain unsolved — for example, determining operational tasking of the host satellite and its hosted assets when bullets start to fly poses an open question.
  • Launch policies need changes. Current policy requires national security payloads to launch on U.S. launch vehicles. This has created inefficiencies in the market, burdening customers with higher costs than those borne by commercial and other international players. For companies considering hosting a satellite sensor, this puts their core business at a distinct competitive disadvantage. Also, acquisition practices by the U.S. government, the dominant customer in the U.S. market, must change to encourage more cost competitiveness, or financial offsets must be implemented.
  • International partnerships for hosted payloads should be considered. Many of the potential hosts for government capability are foreign-owned or are based overseas. Given that foreign involvement with U.S. space systems has traditionally raised security concerns, a flexible policy regime that guarantees security should be hammered out and used.
  • Hosted payloads will increase the complexity of satellite systems, so costs must be ruthlessly monitored and controlled. Integration is not a risk-free process. One way to address this from the beginning is to focus on common standards — simplify the interface, simplify the integration. Remember, as more people touch the spacecraft, complexity increases and costs go up.
  • Commercial sector business practices should be used, but we must establish performance milestones and clear tests for government mission assurance.

Hosted payloads offer a new approach to developing and fielding space capacities. They offer operational flexibility and, in a time of budget constriction, cost-effective opportunities that are “good enough.” But the only path to seeing them provide these benefits will take proactive measures by government and industry to flush out the concepts and establish a strategy to make them a reality.

 

Josh Hartman is chief executive of the Horizon Strategies Group.