Satellite firms pitch the government on off-the-shelf commercial products

By Steven Overly
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 9:35 PM

When the Obama administration set down its National Space Policy last summer, the guidelines for government agencies with missions in outer space boded well for commercial satellite companies. It told agencies to avoid building satellites from scratch if products on the market could fulfill their needs with few adjustments.

The directive's message was not lost on the satellite operators and manufacturers attending last week's annual industry conference in Washington. Although the government's practices don't yet mirror policy, many local companies were touting ventures that executives said could help the government to conduct missions on budget and on time.

"The policy backdrop is reinforcing the role that commercial space and commercial satellites play for the defense department and conversely government customers are an increasingly important sector for the commercial satellite world," said Patricia Cooper, president of the Satellite Industry Association.

Iridium, a McLean satellite operator, was eager to discuss "hosted payloads," a term the industry uses when one company leases space on its satellites to someone who wants to send sensors or other equipment into orbit without the cost or hassle of doing so themselves.

The company will launch a network of 66 satellites starting in 2015 that should cover the entire globe from about 480 miles above the planet. Chief Executive Matt Desch said its a distance ideal for climate scientists to collect data or air traffic controllers to monitor aircraft.

But Desch said the government has been a tricky customer to court, despite the fact that Obama's policy specifically urges agencies to take advantage of hosted payloads. "It requires some initiative and courage, frankly, on behalf of people who have done things a certain way for the last 20 years and have to consider taking this unique opportunity for what it is and taking advantage of it," Desch said.

The government business at Orbital Sciences in Dulles has been gaining momentum, particuarly as some agencies shy away from large, complex procurements that can cost more money and take longer to complete than planned, said Vice President for Corporate Communications Barron Beneski.

"The concept, on paper, of building one satellite with lots of different sensors on it is that it will save you money. In reality, it busts the budget," Beneski said. The company specializes in small, lower-powered satellites that it can deliver on a set schedule and budget. Agencies are now looking for those criteria, Beneski said, "and that's a new trend."

Other local companies, including Columbia's Integral Systems and District-based Intelsat, unveiled services that executives said could save money for the government and commercial satellite operators by extending the lifespan of satellites already in orbit and improving their efficiency while there.

Intelsat has partnered with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates to launch the first spacecraft capable of refueling satellites in orbit. Intelsat will use the tanker on its own satellites and provide a similar service to the U.S. government. Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General, said it could keep a satellite in operation for an additional three to five years.

"Just about every [government] program has some kind of delay where gaps are created" between when a satellite expires and another is launched, Sears said. "If we can go in and offer them a solution where they refuel and bridge that gap, I think that's going to be a nice service."

And while the satellites are in orbit, Integral Systems aims to sell monitoring software that would allow the government or a company like Intelsat to keep tabs on its network. A demonstration at the company's exhibit showed real-time atmospheric weather, radio signal interference and other data meant to ensure a network functions properly.

The software "allows you to use the core [product] that we bring . . . and tailor it into a solution that will meet any mission requirements," said James Kramer, senior vice president and general manager of civil and commercial systems. "We don't do custom development each time."

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