Government as Customer of Space Commerce graphic of handshake in front of U.S. Treasury

Hosted Payloads

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.

Intelsat 14, host to the IP Router In Space (IRIS) Joint Capability Technology Demonstration

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.

Placing a hosted payload on a commercial satellite costs a fraction of the amount of building, launching, and operating an entire satellite. The commercial partner only charges for the integration of the payload with the spacecraft and the marginal use of power, launch services, and other resources. The total price is far below that of deploying an independent, government-owned satellite.

In recent years, the hosted payloads concept has gained significant traction within both government and industry. Satellite companies, recognizing the opportunity to further monetize their capital investments, have created new divisions and new vice presidents focused specifically on hosted payloads. 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.

Read Charles Baker's March 2011 media interview at Download Charles Baker's presentation from Satellite 2011 on NOAA's potential use of hosted payloads... Read about NOAA's interest in commercial solutions, including hosted payloads...

For government agencies, a key challenge to launching hosted payloads is meeting the rapid pace of commercial satellite development. Satellite operators must launch their spacecraft on time in order to meet the huge commercial demand for communications. In many cases, the satellites being launched are replacing older ones that have degraded. Communications firms cannot afford to delay replenishment satellites to accommodate developmental problems with government payloads.

National Policy

The National Space Transportation Policy of 2013 includes specific language promoting the use of hosted payloads to fulfill government mission requirements.

Learn more...

Missions Suited for Hosted Payloads

Environmental Sensors

Scientific instruments that observe the Earth, its atmosphere, and its space environment do not always need to fly on government satellites. Some may be able to accomplish their missions as hosted payloads. Such missions include hyperspectral sounding, ocean color analysis, and ozone mapping. The removal of various sensors from planned government satellites has led programs managers to seriously consider flying them on commercial satellites.

To improve space situational awareness, the Defense Department is looking into the possibility of flying sensors on a large number of commercial satellites. Such sensors would augment the Air Force's ability to track spacecraft and orbital debris, monitor space weather, and detect other threats in space.

Technology Testbeds

Hosted payloads provide an efficient means of testing, demonstrating, and validating new space technologies prior to their operational deployment. Because hosted payloads offer regular, reliable, and rapid access to space, program managers can use them to reduce the technical risk of developmental flight hardware. Agencies taking advantage of such opportunities include the Air Force, Coast Guard, and the National Reconnaissance Office.

The DoD Space Test Program (STP) -- the primary provider of spaceflight for the entire Department of Defense space science and technology community -- actively considers hosted payload opportunities as a means for launching R&D payloads, experiments, and risk-reduction demonstrations.

Learn more about STP at

Specialized Transponders

Some hosted payloads provide communications capabilities, just like the rest of the satellite, but with customized features such as specific radio frequencies (e.g., L-band or UHF). These specialized transponders can either be operated commercially and leased back to the user or operated directly by the user.

Read more about leased transponders...


Wide Area Augmentation System

The Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) is a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) augmentation to GPS for air safety. It consists of a ground network and transponders aboard commercially operated geostationary Earth orbit satellites (GEO's). The ground segment sends GPS correction messages to the satellite transponders, which broadcast them throughout North America.

Coverage map
WAAS coverage map

To establish the initial WAAS service, FAA leased existing transponders on commercial communication satellites already in orbit. In 2007, FAA replaced these with custom-built, L-band transponders that were integrated with commercial GEO's (Galaxy 15 and Anik F1R) as hosted payloads. Under this arrangement, the transponders are still operated commercially and leased to FAA. In 2009, FAA signed a contract adding a third commercial GEO (Inmarsat 4F3) to WAAS. It features a leased L-band transponder that the commercial provider installed at their own expense.

The European version of WAAS, known as EGNOS, will transition to a similar arrangement starting in 2011, with tailor-made payloads hosted on commercial GEO's (Sirius 5, others TBD) and leased to the European Commission.

Learn more about WAAS at

Nationwide Automatic Identification System

NAIS concept
Nationwide AIS concept

Another example of a hosted payload is the U.S. Coast Guard's Nationwide Automatic Identification System (NAIS) Project, launched as a concept demonstration in 2008. NAIS is designed to enhance the current Automatic Identification System (AIS), which monitors vessel traffic for maritime domain awareness. The payload is testing the feasibility and effectiveness of AIS message reception and reporting from space for ship tracking and other navigational activities.

The Coast Guard paid a commercial satellite operator (Orbcomm) to develop and integrate the NAIS demonstration payload on one commercial satellite. Sensing a business opportunity, the company used its own funds to add the same capability to five additional satellites. Other customers of a satellite-based AIS data service could include the Navy, NOAA, insurance firms, and trucking companies.

Learn more about Nationwide AIS at

Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload

SES-2, host to CHIRP

A third example is the Air Force's Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) Flight Demonstration Program, which launched a wide field-of-view, passive infrared sensor on a commercial GEO (SES-2) in 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 Air Force expects to achieve major cost savings by flying this mission as a hosted payload. They estimate it would cost approximately $500 million to launch a dedicated free flyer to satisfy 100% of the technical questions associated with the experiment. The hosted payload ended up costing $65 million and should satisfy 80% of the technical questions.

Other Examples

Additional examples of government-sponsored hosted payloads are listed in the table below. The table contains links to external sites providing more information about each mission. (Please note it has not been updated recently and contains outdated/incomplete information.)

(*) Not yet launched
Govt. Partner Hosted Payload Commercial Operator
FAA Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) Intelsat, Telesat
U.S. Coast Guard Nationwide Automatic Identification System (NAIS) Project Orbcomm
Department of Defense IP Router in Space (IRIS) Joint Capability Technology Demonstration Intelsat
U.S. Air Force Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) Flight Demonstration Program SES
NASA Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD)* SES
NASA Multispectral Imaging System for the Thermosphere and Ionosphere (MISTI)* Intelsat
NASA Thermosphere Ionosphere Global and Regional Imaging System (TIGRIS)* Intelsat
Australian Defence Force Specialized UHF communications payload on Intelsat 22 Intelsat
European GNSS Supervisory Authority European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) SES

See also...

For additional information about hosted payloads, visit the websites of the following private sector organizations.

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This page includes references and links to specific private sector organizations, satellites, and/or websites. These are provided for educational purposes and do not constitute a U.S. government endorsement of any private sector products, services, or views.