Northern Sky Research

CHIRP, CHIRP: Will USAF Follow-on Fly?

May 8th, 2012 by Jose Del Rosario   More from this Analyst | Profile

In April 2012, SpaceNews reported that  the U.S. Air Force (USAF) is requesting funding in 2013 for a follow-on mission to CHIRP, or Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, which was launched in September last year aboard the SES-2 satellite. The report said further that the CHIRP follow-on mission, if approved, would be an “operational demo” of a sensor specifically designed to operate in space. The CHIRP payload now on orbit was conceived as a ground-based testbed.

The news is certainly not surprising and consistent with NSR’s recently released report, Hosted Payloads on Commercial Satellites, 2nd Edition.  NSR noted that:

  • The U.S. Military stands to benefit significantly in exercising the hosted payload option due to cost and speed advantages as well as the ability to deploy specialized capabilities;
  • The U.S. Military has launched experimental payloads in recent years and is likely to launch more experimental instruments over the short term but will likely deploy operational payloads over the mid-to-long term.

Indeed, the “operational demo” concept appears to be a bridge in terms of timeline and capability between experimental and operational mode.  Reports and feedback to NSR point to the overall outstanding performance of CHIRP and this, in our view, is largely the reason for the quick interest in deploying a follow-on program.  Should “CHIRP follow-on” perform as well as the first instrument, a CHIRP3 instrument will likely be launched as a completely operational payload.  It will also not be surprising to see a series of other instruments with similar missions launched within the next 3-5 years.

Despite the positive news, the key to market development will be funding. The follow-on mission is reportedly included in the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Space Modernization Initiative account. SpaceNews indicated that the Air Force’s $83.2 million request for SBIRS modernization next year includes $12.6 million for hosted payloads and $7.4 million for a wide-field-of-view sensor testbed. Basically, there is no specific program line item for hosted payloads, and the budget that is available is relatively small when compared to operational payloads such as the Australian Defense Force’s (ADF) UHF hosted payload valued at $167 million.
In NSR’s report, in terms of revenue breakout by agency or organization, the military market is expected to account for the bulk of revenues, which includes the U.S. and other military agencies around the globe.  Combined, Military Communications and Military Earth Observation/Science missions are expected to account for more than half of revenue streams within the 10-year forecast period.  Based on various market scenarios, military entities are estimated to spend a combined $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion for hosted payload capabilities.

Bottom Line

For the envisioned spending to take place, a funding vehicle, program budget line item or long term financial arrangement has to be put in place.  Otherwise, the U.S. Military’s hosted payload shift from “experimental to operational mode” will be slow and the capabilities launched will be fairly minimal within the military’s overall network architecture.

Yet, it is worth noting to see the speed by which the USAF is planning to launch its next hosted payload.  The overall market in general and the U.S. Military market in particular have been slow to take off despite significant interest and extensive discussions over the past several years.  With a funding request for 2013, the CHIRP follow-on could be launched by the 2015-2016 timeframe. NSR believes that if funding for the follow-on is approved and more importantly, a funding vehicle specifically for hosted payloads is established, the U.S. Military market will likely begin to take off in earnest, leading to higher value, more complex programs by the middle of this decade.