What do you need to start a hosted payload program at a university?

In a previous post on The Government Satellite Report, we discussed the challenges and advantages of academic involvement with a hosted payload program and dove into why exactly an academic institution would benefit from such an endeavor.

As a follow up, we are taking a closer look at the logistics and program requirements of a hosted payload program in academia. What exactly do academic institutions need to have in place to make a hosted payload program a success and how much time and resources are required?

To gain a firmer grasp on these requirements, GSR sat down with Dr. Richard Eastes, the Principal Investigator for NASA’s GOLD Mission. GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk) is an ultraviolet (UV) imaging spectrograph designed to measure densities and temperatures in Earth’s thermosphere and ionosphere and will be launched as a hosted payload onboard SES-14.


Here’s what Dr. Eastes had to say about getting a successful hosted payload program off the ground:

Government Satellite Report (GSR): What are some of the two or three basic requirements needed to start a successful hosted payload program on a campus?

Dr. Richard Eastes (RE): Funding is essential, as is a goal that is interesting and feasible. To get the funding needed for the GOLD mission of opportunity, my team and I had to explain how allowing us to spend millions of dollars of NASA’s money will help solve a problem or question that is of interest to them and other scientists.

GOLD was selected for funding after:

  • Scientists reviewing the proposed science were convinced that the mission was the most scientifically promising mission of opportunity of 12 proposed missions
  • A team evaluating the implementation plan, (the technical, cost and management aspects) for the proposed mission were convinced that the mission was likely to result in a successful mission.

Providing that information was possible for GOLD due to the efforts of an enthusiastic team of outstanding scientists and exceptional engineers.

Able leadership of the teams is also crucial, and for a Principal Investigator-led mission like GOLD, that has been my responsibility.

GSR: What would you say are the first steps that administrators or faculty would need to take to put such a program in place? What groups would need to be involved?

Dr. Eastes: Our first step was to identify an opportunity provided by NASA to which we could propose  some ideas for an interesting  science investigation that somewhat matched our expertise.  That enabled some colleagues and myself to then identify other scientists whose expertise and interests would benefit the effort. From there, we could carefully select team members who would be available while accomplishing all the science goals we were proposing, all within the limitations of the funding. Then we had to identify organizations capable of providing what was needed for a successful mission.

For GOLD, the instrument to make the measurements needed and part of the ground system is provided by the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), the University of Central Florida is providing the processing of the data, and SES is providing the hosting. While most hosted science payloads have flown on satellites intended for science missions, such missions at geostationary orbit, the orbits we needed for GOLD, are rare. Therefore, we needed a feasible way of getting the instrument into geostationary orbit, and SES has handled that wonderfully.

GSR: What would be the optimum size for a university hosted payload team? Would it be a comparable size to a professional, business-to-business hosted payload team?

Dr. Eastes: Creation of the proposals for GOLD was supported by the part-time efforts of approximately 12 scientists, a few engineers, and especially a project manager. The development of GOLD instrument was supported by the efforts of approximately 15 scientists and, at the peak of the instrument development, approximately 20 engineers.

A significantly larger science team would have been challenging to support within the budget constraints for the GOLD mission, but the range of expertise needed to address the science goals of the mission could not be adequately covered without the team members participating. GOLD is a cost-capped mission, meaning there have always been funding restrictions.

A business-to-business hosted payload team could be smaller. Most of the GOLD science team members are primarily supported by other sources and devote only limited amounts of time to the mission. Also, since GOLD is motivated by a diverse set of science goals, a more diverse and somewhat larger team is needed.

However, the engineers, who were responsible for the detailed design and fabrication, are all professionals. They moved onto the program as they were needed and moved to other projects when their work was completed.

GSR: Who would the stakeholders involved in a project like this one include?

Dr. Eastes: I’ll use GOLD as my frame of reference for these answers. Stakeholders would include the funder of the mission (e.g. NASA), the instrument builder (e.g. LASP), the science team (e.g. universities, government organizations and one third-party company), and the host mission owner (e.g. SES).

GSR: How long do you think a program like this would take to build out?

Dr. Eastes: If by build out, you mean to build the instrument – it depends on the time needed to design as well as build the instrument. Meeting the goal of the GOLD mission required a new instrument design and defining the interfaces to the spacecraft.

Most of the work on the design, the detailed work necessary for an instrument to be built, began after funding was received. For GOLD, that required approximately three years. During that time, an instrument design was developed and built.

Then comes integration onto the spacecraft and launch, which will be approximately a year for the GOLD mission. Development of the ground systems needed to support the mission during orbit operations, which are currently funded for two years, began with receiving funding, and will continue through the beginning of on orbit operations.

There is a possibility that NASA will fund an extension of the operations beyond the first two years, and we plan to propose for that extension.

To learn more about hosted payloads and their benefits, check out SES Space and Defense’s whitepaper entitled, What is a Hosted Payloador watch the Hosted Payloads Video here.

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