he U.S. Air Force plans to award a sole-source contract to the government services division of commercial satellite operator SES Americom
to host an experimental missile-warning sensor aboard one of its planned geostationary-orbiting telecommunications


The pending deal with Americom Government Services

would involve placing an infrared sensor built by San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) aboard a communications satellite built by Orbital Sciences Corp., according to several industry sources familiar with the negotiations. Nicole Robinson,
a spokeswoman for Americom Government Services of McLean, Va., declined to comment on the negotiations. The company, which markets satellite telecommunications solutions and services primarily to U.S. government customers, is a
owned subsidiary of SES Americom of Princeton, N.J., which is owned by SES of Luxembourg.


The missile-warning sensor is one of two prototype instruments
developed for the Air Force’s planned Third Generation Infrared Surveillance missile-warning system, formerly known as the Alternative Infrared Satellite System. This system initially was
conceived as a stopgap replacement for
the troubled Space Based Infrared System, but now is envisioned as a follow-on
. The Air Force last year requested $230.9 million for the Third Generation Infrared Surveillance
system for 2008, with plans to fly a demonstration satellite around 2010
. Plans for the flight demonstration since have
been shelved, however, and the program’s 2008 budget is
$75.4 million


The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles, which procures U.S. military satellites,
posted a notice on the U.S. Federal Business Opportunities
Web site April 4 indicating it would award a sole-source contract to Americom Government Services for a scientific experiment. In a May 15 written response to questions, SMC said negotiations with the company are ongoing


SAIC built the sensor under a $25 million Air Force
contract awarded in September 2006. Around the same time, the Air Force awarded a $54
million contract to Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif., to develop a similar prototype sensor. Industry sources at the time said the sensors were intended for ground-based testing only.


But shortly after SAIC delivered its prototype sensor in March, the company was awarded another $31.2 million to qualify the hardware for space.


Dulles, Va.-based Orbital is under contract to provide at least three of its Star 2 satellite platforms to SES Americom
One industry source familiar with the design of the SAIC sensor said it consists of four identical infrared telescopes
, likely making it too large to be hosted by the Orbital spacecraft. One possibility is to fly
only one of the telescopes aboard the commercial satellite
, the source said.

While no formal request for proposals to host the payload was issued by the Air Force, other companies, including
Intelsat General Corp.
of Bethesda, Md., were aware of this opportunity. Intelsat General is the government services arm of global satellite operator and SES competitor Intelsat, which has major operations in Washington and Bermuda.


“We are fully supportive of this type of creative partnership between government and industry,” said Richard DalBello, Intelsat General’s vice president of government affairs. “Intelsat General has long been an advocate of examining how commercial satellites and networks can be leveraged to provide new, low-cost solutions to evolving military communication needs.”


Putting this military sensor on a commercial spacecraft would be further evidence
that the Pentagon has bought into the concept of hosted payloads. Intelsat
has an agreement to host an experimental Internet Router in Space
payload for U.S. Strategic Command, and the U.S. Navy plans to put an ultra-high frequency communications payload on a commercial satellite as well. DalBello said “hosted payload” was just a buzzword not long ago, and now it has become a trend.


“Now we are seeing actual concrete work in the hosted payload arena,” DalBello said. “I think you have to watch this space now. The question is whether or not it is sustainable.”


U.S. Army Col. Patrick Rayermann, chief
of the Army Space and Missile Defense Division, said the military is warming to hosted payloads because industry is able to develop and procure spacecraft faster than the government.


“If you have a sensor ready to go but don’t have a spacecraft to host it, commercial satellite builders and operators can step in,” Rayermann said. “I think the military is increasingly receptive to a number of possibilities because attaining a mix of capabilities gives you more survivability and robustness.”

Jeremy Singer contributed to this article from Boston. Comments: tbrinton@space.com