DoD Buzz

Playing Piggyback in Space


Satellites are very expensive. The sensors on them are very expensive. Launching satellites is very expensive. One way the government has considered saving some of those launch and satellite costs is by piggybacking its sensors on commercial satellites. Known as hosted payloads, such packages have attracted considerable interest from the government for the last few years. But industry worries that their satellites might become military targets in time of war or be used for purposes which their customers might find difficult to explain to their own governments. And there are questions about who controls the satellite and under what circumstances. Meanwhile, the Pentagon's space experts are building a website they hope will make it easier for the government and industry to get together on such deals  Josh Hartman, who was one of the Pentagon's top space acquisition officials and is now with the Center for Strategic Space Studies, offers a step-by-step approach to get both sides closer to their goal.

Commercially Hosted Payloads (HP), flying government payloads as secondary missions on commercial satellites, have intrigued the minds of government decision makers for some time.  The Department of Defense has pursued two HPs:  Commercially Hosted Infra-Red Payload and Internet Router In Space.  While they show promise, neither has created enough interest to tip the scales in favor of the idea becoming a regular practice. At the same time, the Obama administration’s new National Space Policy and the Pentagon’s emphasis on “efficiencies” have fostered more interest and momentum in HPs.

Put simply, HPs provide great opportunity to both industry and the government.  They offer the government a greater number of options from operational and business perspectives.  They offer diversification of government architectures and capabilities, while increasing survivability and making it harder for an enemy to eliminate our space capabilities.  For industry, they create business opportunities outside of typical government customers and ease market entry for new players.

Despite this interest, don’t expect many HPs to darken our skies soon. Ultimately, DoD wants assured reliability of HP capabilities, while industry wants a profitable business model.

The core barriers and obstacles to HPs are cultural not technical.  Government bureaucracies are not designed to change.  They seek stability and control.  The space community is no different.

Getting the government to give up ownership and accept a new concept will be more difficult than most outsiders understand.  But flying  demonstration HPs and developing models and simulations should reduce risk, while warming the operations community to the idea.  Step by step progress will prove their value in a way comforting to government organizations.

Of course, proponents of HPs should be careful to not over-promise.  They are not a universal solution to government’s space interests. Grand visions for the future and failure to fulfill objectives of HP initiatives will end up creating far more skeptics than supporters.

Operational problems with HPs remain unsolved.  For example, determining who controls the host satellite and its hosted assets when bullets start to fly poses an open question.  On top of that, standards and solutions for cyber security and mission assurance must be established before the government can have confidence in and accept dependence upon HPs for intelligence and other national security operations.

Part of the problems is that there has not been enough discussion about the business models that should be used, understanding of how the business cases may work, and detailing the business practices that industry will follow. Until this happens, commercial industry will remain leery.

In order to make HPs a reality, government and industry must talk and perform detailed analyses about how it will work.

Here are some things to consider as both sides wade through this thicket of policy and operational issues.

First, industry and government should develop concept of operations (CONOPS) by mission area. These must cover the end-to-end data path and all system level processes. Among the issues that need sorting out are the architectural balance between big satellites, small free-flyers and hosted payloads.  Since buying big satellites often leaves us with capability gaps, constellations based solely on small free-flyers or HPs will also leave gaps.   Understanding the contribution of each, by mission area, and developing architectural balance will do the best job of satisfying combatant commanders and the intelligence community.

Next, the two sides need to define and understand potential business models and open discussions about how to satisfy government needs with commercially viable solutions.  Everyone needs to develop a clearer idea of what is the right mix of government-owned, commercially owned, government-operated, and commercially operated models.

Launch policies may need changes.  Current policy requires national security payloads to launch on U.S. launch vehicles. This has created inefficiencies in the market, burdening customers with higher costs than those borne by commercial and other international players. For companies considering hosting a satellite sensor this puts their core business at a distinct competitive disadvantage.  Also, acquisition practices by the U.S. government, the dominant customer in the U.S. market, must change to encourage more cost competitiveness or financial offsets must be considered if the policy remains the same.

Consider international partnerships for HPs.  Many of the potential hosts for government capability are foreign-owned or are based overseas.  Given that foreign involvement with U.S. space systems has traditionally raised security concerns, a flexible policy regime that guarantees security should be hammered out and used.

Hosted payloads will increase the complexity of satellite systems so costs must be ruthlessly monitored and estimated. Integration is not a risk free process. As more people touch the spacecraft, complexity increases and costs go up. One way to address this from the beginning is to focus on common standards.

Another factor to consider is that Hosted Payloads are not likely to offer what the space community calls exquisite capabilities, such as those found on the NRO's most sophisticated satellites.  We should have the right expectations.

The best way forward is for government to establish performance milestones and test for mission assurance while keeping its hands off the commercial sectors business practices.

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