NASA’s GOLD instrument, which is flying as a hosted payload aboard the SES-14 satellite that launched Jan. 25, 2018 on an Ariane 5 rocket and finally reached orbit that June, returned this “first light” ultraviolet image in September. Credit: Courtesy LASP/Gold Science Team

The caption for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy image was corrected Aug. 15 to say the General Atomics Orbital Test Bed launch Jan. 25 did not include a hosted payload. A future Orbital Test Bed will host a NOAA payload. 

SAN FRANCISCO — When the U.S. Air Force selected 14 companies in July 2014 to help the government launch military payloads on commercial satellites, observers expected a wave of contracts to follow.

Five years later, the Hosted Payload Solutions (HoPS) contract vehicle has expired “and will not be extended,” said Col. Charles Galbreath, deputy director of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Command (SMC) Advanced Systems and Development Directorate.

“In 2014 SMC awarded the HoPS contract with an assumption several payloads would require a commercial host,” Galbreath said in an emailed response to questions. “Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, none of those payloads materialized … Mission area stakeholder’s requirements and budgets did not align well with commercial hosting opportunities between 2014 and 2019.”

What happened to the promise of military hosted payloads?

Part of it was a change in leadership. SMC Commander Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, a vigorous proponent of hosted payloads, left in 2014 to become the military deputy in the Pentagon’s office of the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition and later to take the reins of Air Force Materiel Command.

Douglas Loverro, another hosted payload champion, left his post as SMC executive director in 2013 to become the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. He later established a consulting practice.

The government also faces technical, contracting and cybersecurity challenges related to installing payloads on commercial satellites. For example, the military budgeting, contracting and hardware development processes operate at a much slower pace than those of the commercial sector. As a result, government payloads may not be ready for integration and testing on a commercial satellite operator’s timeline.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy lifts off June 25 on a U.S. Air Force demonstration mission carrying 24 small satellites, including General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems’ Orbital Test Bed satellite. A future launch of the Orbital Test Bed will host a NOAA payload under a contract awarded through HoPS. Credit: SpaceX

In addition, commercial hosting fees are sometimes too high for a military program budget or a commercial satellite might not meet a military payload’s size, weight and power requirements. Another challenge is “alignment of commercial host’s orbital location/coverage area with the military payload’s mission requirements,” Galbreath said.

The downturn in the geostationary communications satellite market further complicates the equation.

“Hosting partnerships are complex arrangements, each with their own unique set of circumstances that directly contribute to their timelines,” Galbreath said. “For instance, a payload that required a geostationary host may have experienced increased timelines due to the downturn in the geostationary satellite market. This resulted in fewer commercial business cases aligning with the cost to build large geostationary satellite solutions.”

Still, the many hurdles can be cleared. The Air Force Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, an experimental missile warning sensor, flew on the commercial SES-2 communications satellite in 2011. This approach saved the Air Force nearly $300 million compared with mounting the sensor on its own satellite, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report, “DOD’s Use of Commercial Satellites to Host Defense Payloads Would Benefit from Centralizing Data.”

SMC’s Hosted Payload Office also helped orchestrate the launch in 2017 of 64 sensors on 32 Iridium NEXT satellites through a program called Responsive Environmental Assessment Commercially Hosted (REACH). Using those sensors, the Air Force continuously monitors radiation in low Earth orbit. The Air Force estimates the REACH price tag was $230 million less than a dedicated constellation, according to the GAO report.

While REACH was negotiated before the Air Force created the HoPS contract vehicle and the military service never employed HoPS, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did.

In January, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems announced plans to fly NOAA’s Argos Advanced Data Collection System on the company’s Orbital Test Bed satellite (GA-EMS). That contract took advantage of the HoPS contract vehicle.

On July 22, NASA selected Maxar Technologies to fly a NASA pollution sensor, Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution sensor or TEMPO, on a commercial communications satellite destined for geostationary orbit. NASA relied on the HoPS contract vehicle to solicit proposals for satellite integration, launch services and ground operations. TEMPO is designed to monitor hourly changes in air quality over North America.

Flying the TEMPO payload on a communications satellite “is important because this is a sustainable path to doing more science,” said Al Tadros, Maxar vice president for space infrastructure and civil space. “NASA is leading the charge for the government making use of the commercial communications satellite industry in flying and collecting this important data.”

Payload hosting also is good business for Maxar, said Tadros, former chair of the Hosted Payload Alliance, a nonprofit trade association.

Iridium Communications has shown the most success in garnering revenue from hosted payloads. Iridium hosts 250 payloads on its Iridium and Iridium Next constellations. L3 Harris Technologies led Iridium’s campaign to attract and integrate hosted payloads in its constellation.

The Iridium hosted payload program succeeded because the Iridium constellation offers global coverage, said Bill Gattle, L3 Harris Technologies Space Systems president. In contrast, sensors seeking rides on a single commercial satellite might not end up exactly where they want to be and may not get as much power for their payload as they want. “All these details are the subject of intense and time-consuming negotiations,” Gattle said.

Another potential hurdle for hosted payloads is culture clash. Commercial satellite operators may want to dictate the terms of the agreement because they own the bus. However, government officials are accustomed to dictating terms. “It takes a while for them to realize both sides have to give,” Gattle said.

As the government explored hosted payload opportunities in recent years, small satellite and launch costs have fallen. “It’s much easier to negotiate a slot on an ESPA ring than a hosted payload agreement,” Gattle said. “Now, for about the same price as a hosted payload, you own the capability and you have control.”

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...