A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) details how space programs within the U.S. Department of Defense can save money, get to orbit faster, and deter attacks by launching payloads onboard commercial satellites. Doing so foregoes research and development for a dedicated government satellite and spreads capabilities across more spacecraft to protect against major system failures.

The DoD has used the commercially hosted payload method just three times before, resulting in significant savings each time. In 2011, C4ISRNet reports, the Air Force saved an estimated $300 million by launching an infrared sensor called CHIRP on a commercial satellite. In 2017, the branch saved roughly $230 million with REACH, an environmental assessment payload that tests space radiation on 32 Iridium NEXT satellites. Three more commercially hosted payload missions are scheduled before 2022, including projects from the Missile Defense Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Despite the success of this acquisition model to date, the GAO report cites skepticism within the DoD resulting from a perception that matching government payloads to commercial satellite logistics is too difficult, as well as generally fragmented knowledge about mission results and challenge mitigation.

The report serves as GAO’s official call for the DoD to establish regulations requiring programs that use hosted payloads agency-wide to collect technical data and lessons learned from those missions and consolidate that information in a central location for analysis. A potential option for such a location is the Air Force’s Hosted Payload Office, established in 2011 to provide advice and facilitate matching between government missions and commercial hosts. This would “better position DoD to make informed decisions when considering acquisition approaches for upcoming space system designs,” and would likely promote commercially hosted missions going forward. The DoD “concurred with our recommendation,” the GAO notes in its report.

The DoD is now promoting launch-as-a-service in the commercial sector through a Launch Challenge hosted by DARPA, which will test industry’s ability to send multiple payloads to space on short notice. If responsive launch becomes a reality for commercial satellite companies in the near future, there would likely be a considerable spike in the DoD’s contracting of commercial hosts to bring military and defense capabilities to space.

Headline Image: The Air Force’s Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload. Photo Credit: Hosted Payload Alliance

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Posted by Andrew Foerch