Industry calls for standards on hosted payloads

Washington DC
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Better coordination and standardization is needed between government and industry to reap the benefits of hosted payloads, according to industry experts.

Speaking at the Satellite 2013 conference in Washington, DC, a panel of experts called on government and industry to coordinate to standardize interfaces, pricing structures and oversight roles, allowing faster resolution of issues and more efficient decision-making.

"Number one is relying on commercial approaches for spacecraft close to launch. This seems intuitive, it seems obvious, but it's not. Because the commercial industry has a very long history of balancing risk, mission success and schedule performance," says Don Brown, vice president of hosted payloads at Intelsat. "In order to have a successful hosted payload programme as a government official, you have to trust in that process."

Intelsat, which has the world's largest satellite constellations, has hosted several government payloads aboard its communications satellites.

Despite contract mechanisms from NASA and the US Air Force's Space and Missile Command (SMC) addressing the issues, many unresolved questions remain about how to reliably synch schedules and how to operate under certain partial-failure conditions. Often, notes Brown, government programme officials are not authorized to make such decisions, leading to delay and disagreement.

As an example, Brown spoke about Intelsat's experience flying the commercially hosted infrared payload (CHIRP) for the Australian Defence Force (ADF), in which a condition was that the ADF's role be limited to "insight, not oversight" of the full satellite. That mission launched on time and saved the ADF $150 million, says Brown.

"We're seeing some pockets of SMC which are doing a great job, we're also seeing other organization putting constraints on the policy right now," says Bill Gattle, vice president of aerospace systems at Harris Corporation.

Though hosting a military payload on a commercial satellite can be advantageous for both parties, government must do a better job of sticking to timelines and resist calls for costly design changes. While military programmes are subject to what is commonly called the 'vicious circle' of acquisition, in which added capabilities and programme incentives lead to cost overruns and blown deadlines, the communications satellite industry moves significantly quicker and tolerates less cost inflation.

"Commercial practices, if you adopt them, work. We're so thrilled that NASA and SMC appear to be hearing this message and adopting this approach," says Don Brown, vice president of hosted payloads systems for Intelsat.