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Hosted payloads – do the benefits finally outweigh the risks?

If it seems like the space industry has been discussing the benefits of hosted payloads for many years, it’s because it has. It’s not a secret that hosted payloads are a more inexpensive, efficient and time effective way to get payloads into space. It’s also no secret that organizations can gain faster and cheaper access to space through the use of hosted payloads.

So, if the public sector – the federal government, government agencies, branches of the military and the intelligence community – know that hosted payloads can deliver significant savings and benefits, why aren’t they using them?

That question was one of many at the crux of the discussions at this year’s Hosted Payload and Small Sat Summit –an annual event hosted by Access Intelligence which focuses on the uses of hosted payloads and small satellites to accomplish government missions.

This year’s Summit brought together an interesting mix of industry leaders from satellite manufacturers and satellite communications (SATCOM) providers, government decision makers and program managers from exciting small sat and hosted payload projects across the federal government. The keynote addresses and panel discussions at this year’s event did an excellent job of illustrating the state of hosted payload adoption across the government, and the organizational challenges keeping hosted payloads from seeing even broader adoption.

Hosted Payload Alliance Weighs in on Payload Adoption

Al Tadros of SSL discusses the benefits of hosted payloads with attendees at the 2016 Hosted Payload and Small Sat Summit.

Al Tadros of SSL discusses the benefits of hosted payloads with attendees at the 2016 Hosted Payload and Small Sat Summit.

Early in the conference, Al Tadros, the Chair of the Hosted Payload Alliance and VP of Civil and DoD Business for Space Systems Loral (SSL), laid out some of the many benefits of hosted payloads to attendees. In Al’s words, these benefits include, “Increased access to space, lower launch cost and risk, more resilient architectures resulting from hosting on commercial satellites, operational flexibility of having access on a large number of commercial satellites and payload-focused acquisitions rather than the full-on, purpose built, free-flyer missions that the government regularly uses.”

Although all of those benefits are alluring for the military and federal government, the ability for hosted payloads to dramatically increase the government’s access to space is potentially the most compelling. The concept of hosting payloads on commercial spacecraft makes each new satellite that is launched by the COMSATCOM industry an opportunity to expand the government and military’s presence in space.

According to Al, “In 2015…there were 65 commercial launches, which added to the 1500 satellites in operation – half of which are commercial satellites and 37 percent of which are commercial communications satellites. This is a huge percentage of what’s in space, and the access to this is the promise of what hosted payloads can provide.

But even this ability to increase access to space has yet to drive hosted payload programs across the military. And that may have more to do with what the military is comfortable with, and less to do with what is best for the military and its mission.

History of DoD Hosted Payload Initiatives

One of the first keynote addresses at the event was delivered by Dr. David A. Hardy, the Associate Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force (Space), who explored the history of the DoD’s space initiatives and illustrated how they impact space policy today.
As Dr. Hardy explained, the Air Force has historically faced limited options and opportunities for launch. These limited launch options were extremely expensive, so the Air Force responded by building massive, monolithic space craft that would deliver immense capability while maximizing the return on their launch investment. And the high total cost – coupled with the mission-critical nature – of the satellites being launched made the Air Force understandably risk adverse and inclined to try and control everything.

Dr. David A. Hardy, the Associate Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force (Space), discusses the  state of hosted payload and small sat use by the U.S. Air Force.

Dr. David A. Hardy, the Associate Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force (Space), discusses the state of hosted payload and small sat use by the U.S. Air Force.

As Dr. Hardy stated, “We in the DoD space community like to keep control over our assets.”

Much of this sentiment about facing and handling risk, and demanding to own every part of the process and all parts of a mission, were echoed in a later presentation by Major James Crane, the Deputy Branch Chief of the Air Force’s Hosted Payload Office, within the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC).

“I would like to acknowledge the frustration that you all have with how quickly the government has adopted hosted payloads,” Major Crane shared. “It’s not really a technical issue. It really comes down to how the government deals with risk. We also have frustration from the side of the government with our inability to adopt hosted payloads.”

Major Crane’s position and office are, in themselves, a positive step forward to overcoming this frustration and increasing hosted payload adoption across the government. His office’s mission is to effectively serve as a liaison between industry and government entities to help identify hosted payload opportunities and bring payloads together with COMSATCOM providers that can host them.

Utilizing an IDIQ contract called HoPS (known as the Air Force’s Hosted Payload Solutions Program), Major Crane can appropriately match government projects with comparable hosting opportunities. Unfortunately, this faces its own limitations and challenges. The agencies that are most likely to embrace hosted payloads are also those least likely to have budget dollars to afford them.

According to Major Crane, “The people that can best accept a lot of risk are often the scientific community and scientific exploration missions. Unfortunately, while they can most accept the risk, they’re also the organizations and projects with the tightest budgets.”

Regardless of these challenges, signs are pointing towards hosted payload adoption increasing in the coming years.

According to Major Crane, “I think we are seeing at SMC some movement towards ensuring that the hosted payload concept is being included in all AoAs moving forward. There is a wideband AoA coming up in the near future. The MILSATCOM AoAs will include commercial hosting. We’re working closely with the offices that develop the concepts for the AoAs [to ensure hosting is included.]”

Hosted Payload Office Looks Towards a More Collaborative Future

Major  James Crane shares his opinion on what is slowing hosted payload adoption, and discusses the work being done at the Hosted Payload Office.

Major James Crane shares his opinion on what is slowing hosted payload adoption, and discusses the work being done at the Hosted Payload Office.

Hosted payload adoption will only increase as the DoD and the COMSATCOM industry continue to work more closely together. The military has been historically guarded when working with industry, but they’re learning to work more closely with the private sector from organizations that have historically been extremely collaborative. In fact, the ongoing TEMPO program – which includes NASA and the Air Force working together on a hosted payload opportunity – has been a learning process for the Air Force.

As Major Crane shared, “There is a paradigm at SMC with how we interact with industry. Interacting with NASA and seeing how they interact with industry as we’re executing this TEMPO effort has been really eye-opening for us in the Hosted Payload Office. And we’re starting to see that the way that we’re implementing acquisitions is overly constraining, and that we do it to ourselves. That has been a very interesting revelation.”

Ultimately, the benefits of hosted payloads are staggering. Their ability to increase access to space, slash the cost of military space missions and fundamentally shift the way the military approaches satellite and spacecraft acquisitions is simply too important to let concerns about risk and control keep hosted payloads on the ground.

As Dr. Hardy said, “I feel that [keeping control over our assets] is an outmoded concept…We are looking at hosted payloads and they WILL be a part of our future architecture.”

For additional information on hosted payloads and the ways in which they can help the federal government by increasing access to space and cutting costs, click on the following resources:

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