As the world’s second-largest commercial satellite fleet operator, SES launches new spacecraft all the time, but the one that lifted off Sept. 21 atop a European Ariane 5 rocket was decidedly different. Though its primary mission is telecom, the SES-2 satellite carries an experimental missile warning sensor for the U.S. Air Force.
The Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, or CHIRP, is not the first instance of a U.S. Defense Department mission piggybacking on a commercial telecommunications satellite. But in addition to being SES’s first hosted payload for the U.S. government, CHIRP is a first-of-a-kind sensor featuring a wide field of view.
Commercial satellites typically launch on tight schedules, and CHIRP took a year longer than expected to develop, but SES and the Air Force had a backup plan: SES-2 was one of a batch of satellites Luxembourg-based SES ordered from manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corp., two of which were modified to accommodate the sensor. When CHIRP wasn’t ready to fly on SES-3 as originally planned it was switched to SES-2, which the company could afford to delay until the sensor was ready.
As it turned out, CHIRP reached orbit in time to observe the Oct. 28 launch of a NASA weather and climate monitoring satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Tim Deaver, who until recently was vice president of hosted payloads at SES’s government solutions company, was intimately involved in the process and decisions that ultimately saw CHIRP successfully reach orbit. In his new position, the former Air Force officer is responsible for ensuring that government requirements are taken into account when SES orders a new satellite.
Deaver spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.
What are the lessons from the CHIRP experience?
You never expect anything to work out smoothly when you’re working with tight schedules and research and development payloads. So when we first made our proposal on the CHIRP program to the Air Force, they said we needed a backup plan. When the sensor development program didn’t mature as fast as we thought it would, we ended up going to the backup plan. If you’re going to work with research and development payloads, you better have a backup plan in case it doesn’t deliver on schedule.
SES-2 was originally slated to launch on an International Launch Services (ILS) Proton rocket. Do you think the U.S. government ultimately would have approved flying a missile warning sensor on a Russian vehicle?
The short answer is yes. ILS had made the necessary licensing arrangements to be able to do that.
During the prelaunch press conference, program officials indicated launching on Proton might have been a problem.
There are no policy prohibitions. There was a definite preference to launching it from French Guiana. This one had type one encryption on board so there was a definite preference to keep it in that area.
Should the upcoming U.S. space launch policy clarify what is permissible in terms of launching hosted payloads on non-U.S. commercial rockets?
Right now the way the policy is written is it says you can’t do it unless you get an exemption, and so what industry has asked for is let’s look at reversing that. Let’s look at explicitly allowing some of the hosted payloads, provided they meet specific parameters, to be launched abroad.
SES-2 was built by a U.S. company. What are the challenges associated with putting hosted payloads on satellites built overseas?
You can bring the bus over here. That’s what Iridium Next is doing — they hired Orbital for their recently acquired facility out in Arizona, where the final assembly of the spacecraft will take place.
What mission areas are most ripe for hosted payloads?
Space surveillance is the one area that’s lacking in interest, and we really think there’s a great opportunity. The Air Force has broad area agreements in place right now for studies in the military satellite communications arena. A request for information came out recently for protected communications. They’re looking toward creating resilient networks, segregating out the various parts, and they’ve talked about doing that in missile warning as well: taking strategic missile warning, keeping that on the Space Based Infrared System, but for tactical missile warning, they’re looking at doing hosted payloads on commercial communications satellites or using free flyers. That’s a much lower cost than a super satellite that’s nuclear protected. Plus we know the Federal Aviation Administration’s going to want some additional GPS augmentation satellites over the next few years. There was a recent request for information on that.
Tight budgets make the government reluctant to try new things that can save money in the long run. How do you get past that?
That’s one of the primary reasons we formed the Hosted Payload Alliance. With some education from industry — not having individual companies coming in, which always ends up being a sales pitch — we have a better chance.
Industry officials have described the Assured Satcom Services in a Single Theater (ASSIST) program, under which the Pentagon would lease the full capacity of a commercial satellite, as a good but flawed idea. What’s your view?
As we looked at it, especially in terms of frequency rights when you want to move a satellite, having a Ka- and Ku-band satellite makes it very difficult to find available orbital slots. So to segregate them out made it a little bit easier. I know Central Command had concerns about putting all the capacity on one satellite. But there are ways to use other resources within a constellation to be able to offset that. One idea is to have your dedicated satellite but maybe have some capabilities on a couple of adjacent satellites so you get a little more of a diversified network.
What does the growth curve for SES’s government business look like?
Right now we’re still looking at 8 to 10 percent growth over the foreseeable future. Even though we’ve seen a 75 percent drawdown in troops in Iraq, they haven’t seen a decrease of bandwidth demand. As you pull out troops, you replace them with remote sensing capabilities, either the remote sensing capabilities left on the ground that are still transmitting data or the unmanned aircraft that are going in to replace those eyeballs that were there.
The Future Comsatcom Services Acquisition (FCSA) bandwidth-purchasing vehicle allows the government to bypass integrators that do not operate satellites and contract directly with the companies that do. Is the Pentagon taking advantage?
There have been a few that have been directly contracted. But the majority are still going through the integrators, mainly because they’re still looking at what the best value is for a whole solution, which many times is not on a single satellite constellation.
Does SES have any government contracts in which it leases capacity from other satellite operators?
Inevitably, if you try to provide a solution for multi points, somebody else has capacity in an area where we don’t or vice versa. So we do quite a bit of what we call third-party satellite capacity sales.
So what is the added value of going with integrators?
The integrators have the experience of knowing and interacting with the customer and having established networks.
We’ve heard anecdotally about bandwidth providers investing in security measures only to lose contracts to competitors who did not make similar investments and thus were able to offer lower prices. Have you seen any of that?
We’ve seen the opposite, where a solution was offered that didn’t use an encrypted satellite and one that did, and the one that did was picked over the solution that did not, and it was a little bit higher priced.
A recent report said commercial satellite bandwidth costs have risen dramatically since 2003. What is the driving factor?
Simple: supply and demand. A lot of the contracts from back in 2003 were five-year contracts with one-year renewals — somewhat of a metered escalation in price agreed upon at the time — and once that contract expires, you’re going to pay market price.
Will FCSA force prices back downward as some have suggested?
It brings more competition in so folks will maybe be more aggressive in their bidding, but if there’s only 9 megahertz on a satellite and you can only go to that operator for the 9 megahertz, he’s basically going to get what he wants to get. Some integrators are looking for long-term arrangements with satellite operators to get discounted prices. They’re betting that they’ll always be able to sell the bandwidth. Once again, they’re trying to get a competitive edge to offer lower-priced capacity.