Hosted payloads breathe life into budget-challenged programs
NOAA, other civilian agencies poised to take advantage of commercial-sector approach
- By Henry Kenyon
- Mar 17, 2011
Satellites, especially those with military and scientific applications, are expensive to develop and operate. One way to avoid the high costs of a dedicated spacecraft is to put a payload, such as a scientific sensor package, on another satellite. In theory, a number of different payloads could be carried, or hosted, on a large satellite.
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The commercial sector has used hosted payloads for many years, but they remain in limited use for government spacecraft. President Barack Obama’s new National Space Policy cites shared and hosted space capabilities as a desired cost-saving goal for future satellite missions. In addition to meeting civilian agency needs, hosted payloads are also increasingly popular with military components to help address an increased demand for satellite communications bandwidth.
A number of potential National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration space missions might take advantage of hosted payloads, said Charles Baker, deputy assistant administrator for Satellite and Information Services at NOAA. He spoke March 16 at the Satellite 2011 conference in Washington, D.C.
Those efforts include the total solar irradiance mission to measure the sun’s emissions, Global Positioning System radio occultation to study how GPS signals propagate in the atmosphere, a coronal mass ejection mission to study space weather, and atmospheric sounding missions.
The Obama administration faces some unique challenges. Baker said NOAA prefers unrestricted data redistribution rights. That is not an issue for government-owned payloads, but it does affect the business case for privately owned hosted payloads where the data could be sold back to the government. A key reason for that hurdle is that NOAA is bound by the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, which prohibits the commercialization of weather satellites.
But the real challenge is funding, Baker said. One of the benefits of hosted payloads is that they allow programs to go forward. Otherwise, he said, the cost of a dedicated satellite is too high for many civilian agencies to bear. He added that civilian agencies have tighter budgets than the Defense Department.
Baker also warned that if a budget compromise is not reached next week, NOAA might have to shut down its Earth weather data-collecting satellites for the first time ever, which would lead to an irreplaceable gap in global weather data.
“We’re in trouble,” he said. “So the chances of beginning something new are pretty slim.”
Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.