Jan 31, 2011

Earth-Observation Community Looks to Private Sector to Host Satellite Payloads

Estimated Article Reading Time: 9 min.

Commercial satellite companies are offering the Earth-sciences community a faster and less-expensive way to launch sensors needed to collect vital Earth-observation data and perform a range of scientific missions from space. This capability, known as “hosted payloads,” is a cost-effective and timely way to deploy remote Earth- and space-monitoring instruments on host satellites, which are primarily created to provide commercial voice, data and other telecommunications services.

The public/private partnerships enabled through hosted payloads carry benefits for satellite communication firms and public agencies aiming to stem cost overruns and schedule delays associated with many large, government-run satellite programs.

The March 2010 cancellation of the U.S. government’s problem-plagued National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), for example, underscores the role hosted payloads can play to ensure continuity of data collection necessary for predicting global climate change and making accurate weather forecasts. NPOESS was designed to support the Department of Defense, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). When it was halted, the budget had more than doubled to nearly $14 billion, and the project was at least six years behind schedule. Budgetary pressures now are forcing the scientific community to rethink old ways of doing business in space.

Magnetic Attraction

A good example of what’s possible is the Active Magnetosphere and Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment (AMPERE) program. Funded in part by a $4 million grant awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in June 2008, AMPERE is a collaborative initiative undertaken by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), The Boeing Co. and Iridium Communications Inc.

The project, which recently got underway, is tapping data transmitted from Iridium’s constellation of 66 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to provide researchers with a global view of space weather in near-real time. To monitor data needed for space-weather observation, scientists found a way to upload a software upgrade to the satellites’ bus, enabling a sensor that monitors magnetic fields to also provide the additional information.

This allows APL to get near-instantaneous global readings of electric currents and magnetic signatures of the energy flux that flows between the sun and Earth’s upper atmosphere. These energy fluxes can cause powerful geomagnetic storms that can disrupt telecommunications, utility grids and GPS navigation systems.

The AMPERE project, led by principal investigator Brian Anderson of APL, shows how commercial communications satellites can be used to host secondary missions. According to Lars Dyrud, a scientist at APL, it’s an approach that can satisfy the practical needs of government for Earth-observation data and the academic community’s efforts to expand human understanding of things such as the sun’s long-term effect on Earth’s climate and weather.

“These public/private partnerships and hosted payloads are essentially a paradigm shift in the way we conduct science from space,” adds Dyrud. “This kind of cooperation between industry, scientists and the government expands what we are capable of doing and the kinds of things we never really dreamed were financially possible. If we went to NASA or NOAA and asked for the money to put up a 66-satellite constellation, it would be many billions of dollars and take a good decade to get off the ground. There just wouldn’t be the budget to get sensors on that many platforms. But if you come along and do a hosted payload on Iridium satellites or through another satellite operator, it would cost much less, and we could get our sensors into orbit much more quickly. There are a lot of scientific topics and new techniques that the opportunity opens up.”

New Space Science

The NSF’s mission is to advance scientific knowledge as well as science and technology education. Historically, the government agency hasn’t been directly involved in funding space-based observation projects, according to Therese Moretto Jorgensen, program director in the Geospace Science Section of NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. In the case of hosted payloads, however, NSF’s involvement could help demonstrate new, creative ways of doing science in terms of methodology and results produced.

“That is an objective that NSF can be solidly behind,” says Jorgensen. “A main advantage of hosted payloads is that the reduction in cost can give you the ability to be more places in space and cover more ground. Providing the global coverage is so essential to all the modeling and our understanding of the space environment. Hosted payloads on LEO satellites would fulfill an obvious gap in almost any basic parameter for space weather and the Earth’s upper atmosphere, because we know so little, and certainly not on a global scale. Teaming with industry brings it down into a realm where the NSF can even consider doing it. I see a lot of promise in this.

The White House recognized the potential benefits for these government/industry partnerships when it unveiled a new U.S. National Space Policy in June 2010. The policy encourages federal departments and agencies to explore nontraditional ways of conducting business, including tapping into available commercial space capabilities to the “maximum practical extent.”

Collaborating with a market-driven private sector, which has business incentives to control costs and launch on schedule, could save the government money and time as well as promote a robust domestic commercial space industry. The space blueprint identifies public/private partnerships and hosted payloads on commercial spacecraft as key options to consider. The policy recommends that governmental space systems be developed only as needed to protect the national interest and when a suitable, cost-effective commercial service isn’t available.

Serving Multiple Missions

Even before the space policy was released, the mobile satellite industry recognized it could fill a niche in the government’s space-observation needs. Some companies, such as SES WORLD SKIES, U.S. Government Solutions, created a hosted payload division and named a vice president to head it. Intelsat, another satellite communications company that flies geostationary (GEO) satellites, has been touting the potential for hosted payloads as it launches replacement satellites in GEO orbits.

Iridium adopted the hosted-payload concept as a key part of its design for the Iridium NEXT LEO satellites that will begin launching in 2015 to replace its existing constellation. Iridium began working two years ago with the international Group on Earth Observations to identify remote sensors that could be flown as hosted payloads to collect data on atmospheric humidity and temperature; polar winds; changes in the ozone layer; and the height of the sea surface, waves and ice.

“The concept of hosted payloads on satellites has been evolving over the past several years, and it has been demonstrated as a general-purpose capability,” says Om Gupta, Iridium’s director, strategic market development, Iridium NEXT. “Within certain payload limits, you can put whatever sensors that you want for weather, climate, space weather, or for monitoring airplanes or ships.”

Gupta notes that Iridium NEXT presents an opportunity for dramatically enhancing space-based observations of Earth and its atmosphere.

“This will be the largest-ever commercial satellite replenishment program, and the constellation of 66 new cross-linked LEO satellites can provide low-latency near-Earth data globally,” he adds. “With launches due to start in 2015, Iridium NEXT has the potential to overcome the likely data gaps that delays and budget cuts in dedicated space programs create.”

To date, the government has made limited use of commercial satellites for hosted payloads. A “classic use” of a government-hosted payload is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS). The L-band standalone payload flies on Intelsat and Telesat GEO satellites, providing airline pilots with precision GPS guidance during flight and on landing approaches.

“The FAA does not have any satellites of its own, so for them to put anything in space that they control has to ride on somebody else’s satellite, or else they have to incur a large cost,” notes Charles Baker, the deputy assistant administrator for NOAA’s satellite and information services. “It was an ideal solution for them. Even agencies that have their own satellites may find it advantageous, from time to time, to put something on somebody else’s satellite.”

Baker, who counts himself as an advocate of commercially hosted payloads, said NOAA is exploring the possibility of flying on commercial satellites at least one climate- and weather-monitoring sensor that had been slated to ride on NPOESS: a total solar-irradiance sensor that measures the amount of radiant energy from the sun at the top of Earth’s atmosphere.

The sensor, which monitors the total spectrum of solar radiation, including visible, ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, provides data used to study global warming, climate change and weather patterns. NOAA also is looking for a host satellite to fly GPS radio occultation sensors used for atmospheric readings to forecast weather and monitor climate change.

“Today we’re relying strictly upon a Taiwanese satellite carrying U.S. instruments for that data,” says Baker. “But in the future, we might want to augment the number of sensors by placing them on other people’s satellites in low-Earth orbit.”

Baker adds that several sensors unrelated to weather or climate slated to fly on NPOESS are candidates for hosted payloads, including data collection systems that monitor things such as tide gauges and buoys that uplink data to a satellite. They also include search-and-rescue payloads that relay emergency-beacon signals that allow rescuers to locate boats missing at sea or hikers lost in the woods.

“All of the satellites currently flying those sensors are getting older, and one of our fears is that we will not have an adequate number in space,” notes Baker.

“It’s the speed and cost efficiency that is really driving the government’s interest in this,” adds Jeff Foust, senior analyst with Futron Corp., a technology-management consulting firm that helped organize several government/industry workshops on hosted payloads. “There’s a steady stream of opportunities for hosted payloads, because you have 20 to 25 commercial GEO satellites being ordered and launched every year, plus you have special opportunities such as Iridium NEXT that have a much larger number of satellites in a global system.”

Benefits to All

Because hosted payloads are relatively new, developing a set of policies and procedures that make it easier for government agencies and the private sector to partner on projects is a challenge. This includes developing mechanisms that regulate contracts and pricing as well as enable federal agencies to take advantage of available opportunities. Because of existing regulations and bureaucratic barriers, government agencies can find it difficult to move at the same speed as the private sector.

A key purpose of hosted-payload workshops has been to give industry and government officials a forum to identify potential barriers and begin to develop solutions. The important thing, notes Foust, is that with the new U.S. space policy, government supporters of hosted payloads now have the official backing of the administration to pursue opportunities.

“It’s a trite phrase, but the use of hosted payloads has the potential to be a win-win,” adds Foust. “It’s an opportunity for the industry to maximize potential revenue by making use of satellite capacity that otherwise might go unused. For the government side, it provides a greater degree of flexibility to get important payloads up faster and less expensively than the traditional way of doing business. There’s a great potential here to do more with less and provide some real savings to the taxpayers.”

By Jon Glass. Jon Glass is a freelance writer based in Norfolk, Va., specializing in business and technology subjects; e-mail: jw.glass@live.com.