As reported by defpro.news and other news sources, Northrop Grumman has been awarded a $5.75 million contract from the U.S. Air Force to provide research and development for the Modular Architecture for Signal-processing, Tracking and Exploitation Research program (MASTER). The contract was awarded by the Space and Missile System Center's Development Planning Directorate, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.
MASTER supports the government ground processing effort for the U.S. Air Force's Commercially Hosted IR Payload (CHIRP) program's on-orbit period. An experimental CHIRP sensor is hosted on a commercial SES satellite operating in geosynchronous orbit over the United States. The SES satellite was successfully launched on Sept. 21 from French Guiana.
The term hosted payloads refers to the utilization of available capacity on commercial satellites to accommodate additional transponders, instruments, or other spacebound items. By offering "piggyback rides" or "hitchhiking" opportunities on commercial spacecraft already scheduled for launch, satellite firms allow entities such as government agencies to send sensors and other equipment into space on a timely and cost-effective basis. The hosted payloads concept is similar to the ridesharing or multiple manifesting concept, but instead of sharing a space launch vehicle, the partners share a satellite bus. In some cases, hosted payloads may also be referred to as secondary payloads.
Hosted payloads can allow the government to plan and implement space missions on shorter cycles compared to the time it takes to procure an entire satellite -- typically 24 months versus 7 to 15 years. This is especially important for agencies facing impending gaps in operational capability. The commercial partnership gives the government an opportunity to leverage an already planned or existing satellite bus, launch vehicle, and satellite operations.
SES-2 satellite, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., carries the first commercially hosted payload for the U.S. Air Force. The satellite was placed into geostationary transfer orbit on September 2011. In addition to its broadcast payload for North American customers, SES-2 carries the U.S. Air Force Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP), a staring, wide-field-of-view telescope designed to test infrared sensor technologies.
The CHIRP sensor was developed by scientists on the Third Generation Infrared System (3GIRS) Risk Reduction team for U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Research Laboratory. The sensor uses a telescope to persistently view a quarter of the Earth from geosynchronous orbit, which matches the Earth's rotation so it appears in the same place in the sky. Its large format focal plane array accommodates a wide-field-of-view infrared staring system to sense bright spots on the surface of the Earth that aid in the early warning of missile launches and to support other military missions. The sensor is remotely commanded and monitored by staff located at the SAIC-developed CHIRP Mission Analysis Center (CMAC) in Seal Beach, Calif. The CHIRP sensor data is securely transmitted to a U.S. government facility, as well as CMAC, for mission data processing and evaluation of the sensor.
The CHIRP sensor features a fixed telescope that can view one quarter of the Earth from geosynchronous orbit. The infrared sensor, based on a 2,000 by 2,000 pixel staring array, will test the potential of its wide field-of-view capabilities for future overhead persistent infrared missions for the U.S. Air Force.
U.S. Air Force's MASTER program has assisted the ground processing effort of the government for the CHIRP campaign. MASTER has been successful in integrating and using algorithms provided by outside third parties as well as processing data from multiple sensors and new experimental simulated data. The MASTER architecture has also enabled innovative parallel data processing with multiple plug-and-play algorithms, along with significant advances in star and static-source line-of-site correction methods.
In recent times, the hosted payloads concept has gained significant traction within both government and industry. Government agencies, facing new budgetary realities, have issued solicitations and held industry days to investigate the cost and feasibility of commercial solutions, including hosted payloads, as a means of fulfilling their mission requirements.
The U.S. Air Force's Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) Flight Demonstration Program launched a wide field-of-view, passive infrared sensor on a commercial GEO (SES-2) on September 9, 2011. The experiment supports next-generation infrared sensor system development and is essential to reducing technology risk for the Third Generation Infrared Surveillance (3GIRS) system.
The U.S. Air Force expects to achieve major cost savings by flying this mission as a hosted payload. It has been estimated that if CHIRP were to fly as a dedicated free flyer the cost would be around $500 million. The hosted payload ended up costing $65 million and should satisfy 80% of the technical questions. CHIRP is SES' first hosted payload, SES-2 is also an important demonstration of how hosting government special purpose payloads on commercial satellites can provide cost effective means for experimenting with new technologies.
An innovative three-way industry partnership was responsible for developing, integrating and testing the CHIRP sensor for the U.S. Air Force. SES acted as the prime contractor for the hosted payload project; SAIC developed and built the CHIRP sensor; and Orbital was responsible for the overall system design, integration and testing processes, as well as the designer and integrator of the hosted payload interface that will be employed for future hosted payloads aboard Orbital’s commercial satellites.
The MASTER contract awarded to Northrop Grumman is a follow-on effort to the Alternative Infrared Satellite System program, begun in 2006 and then renamed Third Generation Infrared Surveillance. MASTER has been focused on developing an open, plug-and-play, sensor-agnostic processing architecture for the government to use in evaluating whole earth-staring array sensors.
"MASTER provides an important sensor-agnostic ground processing capability for our customer," said Ron Alford, Northrop Grumman's director, sensor exploitation systems and Colorado campuses. "The architecture utilizes an enterprise approach with an open architecture and plug-and-play components. In future data processing systems, measurable cost savings can be enjoyed by using the MASTER architecture to provide common processing capabilities across sensor types and system constellations without the need for customized processing chains."
"This approach not only reduces costs, but facilitates new missions, new sensor/data providers and the participation of third parties in specialized processing algorithms for new and changing missions," Alford said.
States Romain Bausch, President and CEO of SES, said: “SES-2 will provide seamless replacement capacity at the important orbital position of 87 degrees West, ensuring a number of our North American customers a smooth continuation of their operations for years to come. Fitted with CHIRP, SES’ first hosted payload, SES-2 is also an important demonstration of how hosting government special purpose payloads on commercial satellites can provide cost effective means for experimenting with new technologies”
References: defpro.news (1), Space Commerce (2), HostedPayload.com (3), SAIC (4), SpaceNews (5), Aerospace and Defence News (6)