Satellite operators want to carry more military payloads and are looking to Congress for help
WASHINGTON — An experimental missile-detecting sensor was launched in 2011 aboard a commercial SES communications satellite. The project, named “commercially hosted infrared payload,” or CHIRP, was a test of whether it made sense for the Air Force to have military payloads hitch rides to space on private-sector satellites. It was part of a broader effort by the Air Force to gauge the utility of “hosted payloads” as a way to supplement or replace military purpose-built constellations.
The CHIRP project ran out of funding in 2013, and few similar efforts have been pursued since.
“Everything I heard about CHIRP was that it was a great success,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Military leaders are clamoring for more space-based surveillance to track missile launches and other hostile activities, “so why aren’t they putting up more hosted payloads like CHIRP to satisfy warfighter demand?” Harrison asked.
Similar questions have been raised on Capitol Hill, resulting in language in the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that directs the Pentagon to seize oversight of military investments in hosted payloads.
“Some folks in Congress are not happy” that the Air Force and DoD are not taking advantage of commercial satellite capacity available to host military payloads, Harrison told SpaceNews. “There are a lot of great opportunities to increase resiliency and capacity.”
Section 1608 of the HASC bill is titled, “Designation of Component of Department of Defense Responsible for Coordination of Hosted Payload Information,” an amendment introduced by Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ). It requires the secretary of defense, secretary of the Air Force and other leaders to designate an office to coordinate “information, processes and lessons learned relating to using commercially hosted payloads.”
Commercial satellite operators for years have lobbied for congressional action on this. At a time when the industry is building huge satellites that have extra carrying capacity, hosting national security payloads is viewed as a profitable business that also helps the military fill a need.
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, based in Los Angeles, in 2014 opened a Hosted Payload Office and sought industry bids for “hosted payload solutions” — a contracting vehicle to pre-qualify satellite manufacturers and operators for future hosted payload opportunities. The program is still in place, but projects have slowed to a crawl, according to industry officials.
NASA joined the Air Force’s hosted payload initiative and has been a strong proponent of piggybacking on commercial satellites. The agency in January launched the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD, a hosted payload aboard SES-14, a commercial communications satellite. GOLD is the first NASA science mission to fly an instrument as a commercially hosted payload.
Whether the NDAA language spurs any action is anyone’s guess. Space analyst Brian Weeden, program director of the Secure World Foundation, said hosted payloads were a “hot topic several years ago, when there was a lot of talk about the DoD possibly putting payloads on commercial satellites.” But ultimately there were only a few actual missions, such as CHIRP, and the concept “never panned out to the degree industry had hoped for,” Weeden told SpaceNews. “My sense is they ran up against the same bureaucratic and cultural obstacles as small satellites and other ideas for resilience.”
Commercial satellite operators predict Congress will help. As one industry executive noted, “We are excited to see that the Norcross amendment made it into the House NDAA.”