Navy Vice Adm. James Syring. Credit: C. Shamwell

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s first commercially hosted payload is now expected to launch in mid-2017, nine months later than the date officials used when they discussed the program in March 2015.

The Spacebased Kill Assessment is the MDA’s first known foray into commercially hosted payloads, where government organizations fly dedicated instruments aboard commercial satellites that provide the power, data handling and other functions. The hosted payload concept has slowly gained traction within the Defense Department in recent years — albeit too slowly for advocates in industry and Congress.

For the Missile Defense Agency, the SKA sensors, built by the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and weighing just 10 kilograms, would verify whether incoming missiles have been destroyed by defensive interceptors and no longer pose a threat.

Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, discussed the SKA program April 14 in his written testimony before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee as part of a posture hearing.

In the MDA’s 2016 budget request, the agency said it would launch the first hosted payload by this October, with a second payload six months later and a third payload in mid-2017.

But in the agency’s latest budget request, MDA said the first payload would not launch before spring 2017, with the second and third launches slated for sometime later that summer.

MDA officials asked for $19.75 million for the program in the White House’s 2017 budget request. That’s about $750,000 less than the current year budget. The program came in response to a directive by Congress in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to develop and field improved kill assessment capability by 2020.

The sensors are expected to last more than 10 years, according an MDA fact sheet.

Syring said the MDA plans to complete the testing and  integration of the payloads onto hosted payload modules in 2017 and conduct on-orbit deployment, checkout, calibration and commissioning of the SKA sensor network.

The MDA has not identified any of the host satellites, although several industry sources say the likeliest candidate is the Iridium Next constellation of mobile communications satellites. The first of Iridium’s 72 next-generation satellites are slated to begin launching this summer aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

In a fact sheet, the MDA described the sensor network as a chance to take advantage of “a once in a decade opportunity for hosting sensors on commercial space platforms became available … The SKA sensor network is in the unique position of being able to accommodate commercial practices and so the program took advantage of the billion-dollar investment industry had already made in their satellites and communications network and completely sidestepped those costs.”

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.