The SES-14 satellite will carry NASA's Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) instrument as a hosted payload. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space

WASHINGTON — A Florida senator is asking the White House to revise existing policy regarding the launch of government hosted payloads on commercial satellites, a move some in the industry fear could further restrict the use of such payloads.

In an Aug. 23 letter to Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked that an existing policy that allows hosted payloads to be launched on foreign vehicles without explicit government approval be changed to require such payloads to launch on U.S. vehicles.

The current national space transportation policy, enacted by the Obama administration in 2013, requires U.S. government satellites to launch on domestic rockets unless formally exempted by the White House through an interagency process coordinated by the National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy. That provision is similar to language in prior policies requiring government satellites to launch on American vehicles.

However, the 2013 policy included an exception to that policy for hosted payloads developed for U.S. government agencies that were incorporated onto commercial satellites. Such payloads do not require a formal White House exemption to launch outside the United States.

Rubio argued in his letter, released by his office Aug. 26, that changes in the commercial launch marketplace mean that exception is no longer needed. When the policy was released, “the United States had no meaningful participation in the global commercial launch market,” he stated. “Fortunately, we are in a new era with a burgeoning commercial marketplace that can adequately accommodate hosted payloads. Additionally, American providers conduct the majority of the world’s commercial launch services.”

“With this mature marketplace, it is important that United States Government agencies utilize domestic space launch providers to their fullest capabilities,” Rubio concluded. “Thus, I urge you to direct United States Government agencies who intend to place hosted payloads on commercial spacecraft to ensure the hosting satellites are launched on American rockets.”

U.S. government hosted payloads have flown on foreign launch vehicles both before and after the 2013 policy. The U.S. Air Force’s Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP), part of the SES-2 communications satellite operated by SES, launched in 2011 on an Ariane 5. NASA’s Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) payload launched on another SES satellite, SES-14, on an Ariane 5 in 2018.

CHIRP helped establish the formal exception for hosted payloads in the 2013 policy. Existing policy was ambiguous about whether “government payloads,” as stated in previous policies, covered only satellites or extended to hosted payloads that were part of commercial satellites. The 2013 policy made it clear that hosted payloads were not subject to the interagency review and approval process for satellites.

One industry source, speaking on background, said that a change to existing policy could make it more difficult to find rides for hosted payloads. Agencies seeking to fly hosted payloads, primarily on commercial geostationary orbit communications satellites, already face challenges finding a host satellite that has the technical capability to support the payload and an operator willing to accept the complications of adding that payload to its satellite. Moreover, some hosted payloads, particularly Earth science missions, need to operate within a specific, limited range of longitudes in GEO to carry out their missions, further reducing the number of potential satellites that can host them.

The 2013 policy was crafted at a time when hosted payloads appeared to be emerging as a cost-effective way of flying government payloads. However, the record of hosted payloads since then has failed to match that promise, with only a handful of such payloads flying on commercial satellites. Advocates of hosted payloads say that is the result of several factors, from the departure of government officials who backed the use of hosted payloads to technical and financial difficulties involved with incorporating hosted payloads. The overall downturn in the commercial GEO satellite market also reduced the number of opportunities to fly such payloads.

The Air Force, anticipating growth in hosted payloads, created the Hosted Payload Solutions (HoPS) contract vehicle in 2014, selecting 14 companies to participate in an effort to streamline the contracting process for hosted payloads. However, the Air Force elected to let the HoPS contracts lapse this year, having been used for only a few NASA and NOAA payloads, and none from the Air Force.

NASA has two Earth science hosted payloads in development. GeoCarb will monitor plant health and vegetation stress in the Americas by measuring concentrations of several gases in the atmosphere, while the Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution (TEMPO) sensor will measure air pollution over North America. GeoCarb will fly on an SES satellite yet to be identified, while TEMPO will be included on a GEO satellite built by Maxar for one of its customers, yet to be announced.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...