Closing Looming Data Gaps by Lance W. Lord, Defense News

Closing Looming Data Gaps

Host U.S. Payloads on Commercial Satellites

Published: 20 September 2010

In today’s economic climate, Pentagon planners face tough choices as they are challenged to reduce spending without degrading readiness and operational commitments. The recent announcement by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the U.S. Defense Department will seek $100 billion in savings over the next five years emphasizes the Pentagon must indeed reform the way it procures critical capabilities.

Nowhere is this balancing act more vital than in space operations, and nowhere is there greater opportunity to realize these savings. Greater use of commercial space capabilities is the way forward.

The nation’s space-based capabilities have become indispensable across numerous mission areas, most notably precision navigation and communications, in addition to gathering information to enable accurate and timely terrestrial and space weather predictions.

However, cost and long lead times to develop and deploy dedicated space platforms may soon create gaps in these important space-based capabilities.

Earlier this year, persistent cost overruns and schedule delays led the administration to cancel the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program, a partnership involving the U.S. Air Force, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The system was to have replaced the Pentagon’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.

Now, the Air Force is seeking alternatives to get those vital sensors into orbit. It may have to scale back the program considerably, and some key sensors, such as those needed for the increasingly important space weather monitoring mission, may not be deployed.

The recent introduction of the U.S. National Space Policy emphasizes the role of commercial space in meeting government requirements and directs departments and agencies to consider nontraditional arrangements to use commercial capabilities. The policy notes that public-private partnerships with the commercial satellite industry can offer timely, cost-effective options to fill potential gaps that the public sector might not have the resources to provide.

The commercial sector has a business imperative to control costs and maintain schedules, which is one reason DoD already relies heavily on the mobile satellite industry for voice and data services. For instance, U.S. and allied forces use commercial satellites for over-the-horizon push-to-talk nets in Afghanistan, blue-force tracking, combat weather, logistics, and out-of-band backup data links to unmanned communications sites.

There are many options to leverage commercial space assets for specific mission requirements. One of them is the planned replenishment program for the Iridium satellite constellation (Iridium NEXT) in 2015-17. The new 66-satellite constellation, like the network it is replacing, will fly over the poles in low-Earth orbit, allowing it to provide global coverage with real-time data access.

The Iridium NEXT satellites can carry hosted payloads weighing up to 50 kilograms per satellite. Feasibility studies conducted by the earth sciences community, space agencies and the Air Force have concluded that hosted payloads could offer temporal and spatial visibility for a wide range of missions.

Many missions originally planned for NPOESS, such as sensors that measure key space weather parameters such as electron density and scintillations, could fly on commercial satellites. NOAA and NASA need the same kind of data, which creates possibilities for cross-agency synergy.

Another mission possibility for hosted payloads would be sensors that identify and track space debris, a growing threat to our space assets.

Another intriguing possibility involves the CubeSat concept. These small, 10-centimeter-cube satellites, now a form factor of choice by the scientific research community, are equipped with power and communications systems and typically launch on larger satellites before being dropped off into space. If the CubeSats are flown on commercial low-Earth orbit satellites, they would not require a separate power or communications system since this is provided by the host satellite, freeing up valuable room for more mission in the same volume.

The recently deployed AMPERE system, an acronym for Active Magnetosphere and Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment, is a good example of a public-private partnership using commercial space platforms for secondary missions. Funded by a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, AMPERE is a collaborative initiative involving the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Boeing and Iridium. It provides real-time magnetic field measurements from sensors on the Iridium satellites as a key element in a new observation network to forecast weather in space.

This is the first step in developing a system that enables 24-hour tracking of Earth’s response to supersonic blasts of plasma ejected from the sun at collection rates fast enough to enable forecasters to predict space weather effects.

Through public-private partnerships such as AMPERE, we have an opportunity for cost-effective and timely solutions for many of our vital needs for space operations. But quick action will be needed to meet deadlines for upcoming commercial satellite launch programs, and the time to act is now.

Lance W. Lord is chairman and CEO of L2 Aerospace. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2006 as commander of Air Force Space Command. He sits on Iridium’s Government Advisory Board of former senior U.S. government officials and business leaders.