WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is setting up a contracting vehicle that will make it easier for the Defense Department to secure space aboard commercially owned satellites for so-called hosted payloads.

The armed service intends to start soliciting feedback from commercial satellite operators in the coming days to gather information to prepare a formal request for proposals that would be released by year’s end, according to the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). The idea is to create a stable of qualified providers of hosted payload capacity through an indefinite-quantity, indefinite-delivery (IDIQ) contracting vehicle.

Typically, IDIQ contracts involve no or minimal exchange of funds initially. But companies holding such contracts will be eligible to receive funds in the form of task orders to host the government-owned instruments on their satellites.

The Air Force plans to issue a request for information that is slated to contain draft documents and market research questions aimed at obtaining industry feedback to help SMC determine how various sectors of the space industry will be integrated into the contract. The SMC’s Hosted Payload Office currently is refining requirements for the proposal.

To improve the government’s chances of success, a key objective is to ensure appropriate market research is conducted, SMC officials said. The intent is to gain a thorough understanding about the sources that are capable of satisfying hosted payload program requirements, as well as to allow the industry to provide the feedback that is needed to help the Air Force acquire its desired capabilities, SMC officials explained.

Following the request for information, the next major step will be to post a draft request for proposals in preparation for an industry day, according to the SMC. The request for proposals could be used not only to find contractors to address hosted payload needs for the Air Force but for other U.S. government agencies, according to Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and the service’s program executive officer for space. The IDIQ contract and potential additional contracts will be available to a wide range of satellite and space companies that will include fixed satellite service operators, spacecraft bus manufacturers and others, Pawlikowski said in an email.

The Air Force expects the contracting vehicle to provide opportunities for commercial vendors, such as fixed satellite service spacecraft owners and operators, bus manufacturers and possibly even brokers,  Pawlikowski said.

“This contract would be the vehicle to provide for the integration and operation of hosted payloads on commercial satellites,” Pawlikowski said.

In addition, the contract also would offer assurance that government programs would have the means to use hosted payloads, thereby gaining confidence in pursuing them increasingly as a future option than has occurred in the past, Pawlikowski said.

“We’re also working with other government agencies to consider their hosting requirements and make this contract available for them,” Pawlikowski said. “While we are still in the planning stages to determine the overall scope of this project, we are currently on a path to issue a Request for Proposals before the end of 2012.”

The promise shown by the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, or CHIRP, initiative is helping to spur the Air Force’s interest in additional hosted payload missions,  Pawlikowski said. The missile-tracking sensor was installed on the SES-2 satellite owned by fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, and launched into orbit to let the Air Force test the potential of wide field-of-view, staring infrared sensors for a range of overhead persistent infrared missions.

Indeed, the Air Force is in the process of planning for a follow-on hosted payload to its “very successful” CHIRP program, Pawlikowski said.

“The goal of this follow-on would be to improve Wide-Field-of-View staring infrared capabilities in general, but with an emphasis on their utility to the Battlespace Awareness mission,” Pawlikowski said. “The details of this effort will be framed by the results of the Joint OPIR Integrated Space Trade (JOIST) study currently approaching completion.”

The Air Force’s experience with CHIRP demonstrated that hosted payloads provide an opportunity to get new technical capabilities on orbit without the need to procure a bus and a launch vehicle, Pawlikowski said.



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Paul Dykewicz is a seasoned journalist who has covered the development of satellite television, satellite radio, satellite broadband, hosted payloads and space situational awareness.