PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES on April 13 said it would fly a U.S. solar-science mission as a hosted payload on the company’s SES-14 satellite to launch in 2017 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Luxembourg-based SES said its Government Solutions division of Reston, Virginia, had contracted with the University of Colorado to fly NASA’s Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) sensor aboard the SES-14, which will be stationed at 47.5-48 degrees west in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

The contract is for five years, a period that apparently starts now and includes a University of Colorado payment to offset SES’s satellite construction, launch and orbit-raising, plus two years of operations. The contract includes options to extend the mission on an annual basis.

SES-14 is under construction by Airbus Defence and Space of Europe. The satellite will employ electric propulsion for both its initial orbit-raising maneuvers following launch and over its 15-year life to maintain itself stably at its assigned orbital slot. The orbit-raising — the time from the satellite’s separation from the Falcon 9 rocket to its arrival at its operating station — is expected to take several months.

The GOLD mission will measure the sun’s impact on Earth’s thermosphere and ionosphere — layers of the atmosphere where solar activity can cause space-weather events. GOLD was one of two so-called missions of opportunity NASA’s Small Explorer program selected in 2013 for flights in 2017.

Richard Eastes
GOLD Principal Investigator Richard Eastes. Credit: University of Central Florida

“This mission will be the first to make images of the temperature and composition changes over a hemisphere,” GOLD Principal Investigator Richard Eastes, of the University of Central Florida, said in a statement. “It’s something that scientists have wanted since the beginning of space exploration.”

This is not the first government-owned hosted payload for SES. The company launched the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) for the U.S. Air Force, which was launched on an SES telecommunications satellite in 2011.

The CHIRP contract has become a case study for both the promise and the difficulty in partnering with governments to place hardware on satellites whose principal mission — commercial telecommunications — does not lend itself to long schedule delays, meaning the government customer must adapt to commercially driven hardware-delivery deadlines.

SES spacecraft over Europe are hosting navigation payloads for the European Commission.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.