Defense Leaders Make Renewed Push For Operationally Responsive Space
The Defense Department is eyeing small satellites and new launch systems as potential ways to maintain U.S. space resilience.
Tom Webber, director of the space and strategic systems directorate at U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said technological advances in electronics and computers have allowed for the development of small, low-cost satellites. These spacecraft are designed with a shorter life span, allowing the technology to be updated on a more frequent basis to keep up with rapidly increasing computer power, he said.
“Small satellites deployed in large numbers in low-Earth orbit offer resiliency and some key advantage for some future military operations,” Webber said at the GEOINT symposium in Washington, D.C.
In 2007, the Defense Department created the Operationally Responsive Space Office under the Air Force as an active step to adapt space capabilities and changing national security requirements, documents said. The concept called for inexpensive launch systems that could quickly loft small satellites with payloads that could replenish a critical capability lost because of conflict, malfunction or natural disaster. The ORS office successfully launched two small satellites, one in 2011 and the other in 2013. However, the architecture to build such a system never emerged.
Officials at the symposium embraced the idea again although without evoking the words “operationally responsive space.” Instead, “resilient space” are the new buzzwords.
Webber said deploying dozens or hundreds of small satellites in a constellation creates fewer appetizing targets for an adversary wishing to eliminate U.S. space capabilities with anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.
Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, director of space programs at the Air Force office of the assistant secretary for acquisition said, “Today’s U.S. military and global economic dependence on space make it an attractive target for our adversaries.”
Space capabilities are an intrinsic part of the country’s national security strategy, said Teague. There has been “explosive growth” in the number of nations capable of launching vehicles into space, he said. Some of the 11 space-capable countries have developed and tested ASATs, making the U.S military examine the resilience of its own space capabilities in the event of a direct attack, he said.
“If there was another nation that was going to go against the United States … they would have to take out our space assets,” said Gordon Roesler, program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s tactical technology office. “They’re too good. They’re too useful. They’re too commanding.”
International partnerships are another means to make space more resilient.
Data sharing among allies could improve space situational awareness, said Teague.
Putting a U.S payload on a satellite from another nation would increase transparency, as well as complicate an adversary’s decision to start a conflict, Roesler said. The enemy would now have to decide to attack both the United States and its allies in order to eliminate one of the respective nations’ space capabilities.
The Defense Department is committed to putting U.S. space systems on a “different path,” Teague said. Opportunities to make changes in space architecture do not come along very often, he added. “It’s important to seize the moment and follow through with these programs, these initiatives and make them successful.”
Mark Choiniere, the director of advanced development at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s InnoVision directorate, said there is a concept for a system that would put 10 satellites into orbit on a single launch in order to provide more resilient multi-spectral coverage. The project could be developed for as little as $200 million, he said.
Technology advances needed to maintain space resiliency, such as small satellites, will not come until commercial interest reaches a “tipping point,” where there is more demand for similar products and services, he said.
“I don’t think were going to get there in the next couple years,” Choiniere said.
In the near future, the military satellite market is expected to grow rapidly. The value of the global military satellite market is expected to increase 70 percent during the next decade, according to a recent report by Strategic Defense Intelligence, a London-based business consulting firm. Spending on military satellites should reach $94.3 billion by 2025, with U.S. expenditure constituting 41 percent of the global market.
“Many existing [intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance] satellites are about to reach the end of their operational life cycle,” said Bharathi Bajaj, an analyst at the firm. “Leading defense spenders [will] need to replace these satellites in the next five to 10 years.”
The projected growth is also being driven by the fact that small satellites are an inexpensive alternative to costly [unmanned aerial vehicles] or reconnaissance aircraft, said Bajaj, Especially as manufacturers are focused on cost-effective ways to meet the shifting demands of military customers.
“Micro-satellites are faster to design, develop and launch using commercial-off-the-shelf technology,” said Bajaj. However, their reliability has yet to be proven, he added.
Countries such as Russia, Israel, Japan, Brazil and China have begun investing in micro-satellites, according to SDI. The U.S. military is currently trying to counter increasing investments by Russia and China in the military satellite sector, said Bajaj.
In the meantime, the U.S. government needs to improve its launch capabilities, Choiniere said. Space experts agree that the current systems are not cost effective for sending low-cost satellites to orbit and that a two-year launch timeframe that ORS originally proposed no longer meets U.S. national security requirements.
“If you’re going to launch a $200,000 satellite … you don’t want to launch it on a $60 million rocket,” said Webber.
Effective launch capabilities are a cornerstone of maintaining space resiliency, said Teague. Launch systems provide the abilities needed for global navigation, missile warning, communication, weather and intelligence, he said.
Taking advantage of capabilities made available by already developed programs could be key in producing new inexpensive launch systems, Webber said. Cost effective rockets could be made using technology adapted from commercial industries, he added.
The military has experimented with low-cost launch systems in the past with its soldier-warfighter operationally responsive deployer for space launch vehicle. The Army was able to build a thrust chamber and engine with $60,000 worth of parts that was able to generate 55,000 pounds of thrust at one dollar per pound. However, funding to take the rocket to the next step could not be secured, Webber said.
DARPA is currently examining a few “unconventional” ideas to maintain U.S. space resiliency, Roesler said. One of them is the airborne launch assist space access (ALASA) program, which uses unmodified F-15s to launch small satellites into orbit, he said.
“It’s a really exciting way of getting things into space quickly,” Roesler said.
ALASA offers more mobility for launch sites because an F-15 can takeoff and land wherever there is a runway, said Roesler. It also allows for a wider choice of orbits for the satellite, he said.
The program seeks to reduce launch costs by three times from where they currently stand, Mitchell Burnside Clapp, program manager for ALASA, said in a statement. The mobility of ALASA will provide a higher frequency of missions, and will reduce launch times, he said.
Pam Melroy, the deputy director of DARPA’s tactical technology office, said the agency’s XS-1 is aimed at providing a reusable first stage for the launch by way of an F-15, which will be fitted with a second stage rocket to launch to low-Earth orbit. DARPA wants to use this system to loft 100 pounds to low-Earth orbit for $1 million on a 24-hour notice, she said.
Additionally, DARPA is building a robotic satellite-servicing vehicle, Roesler said. The vehicle will have arms and tools for repairing other satellites, he said. The “highly dexterous” robot arms will have cameras on their ends allowing for inspection within inches of the repair, he said.
“A Swiss army knife in space is what I call it,” Roesler said.
The servicing vehicle could also dock with a satellite and push it out of the way during an anti-satellite attack, Roesler said.
All the technology that allows the servicing vehicle to perform deterrence and repair missions also allows the system to install payloads on a satellite, Roesler said. This would create a replenishing capability once space vehicles are built to carry interchangeable payloads, he said. The program is currently working toward a 2020 launch date, he added.
DARPA has had success with robotics servicing programs in the past, Melroy said. For example, the orbital express program the agency did in conjunction with NASA in 2007 was successful in low-Earth orbit, she said. The international space station frequently uses robotic servicing, she added. Repairing high value assets in geosynchronous orbit where the larger stationary satellites are kept is key to the future resilience of space access, she said. The ability to diagnose and service failed spacecraft there would increase space resiliency, she said.
Space assets are only resilient if ground-based systems and the user equipment are functioning, said Teague. “There is much more to space than just the assets that are in orbit,” he added.
“At the end of the day, it’s about getting those data sets on the ground,” said Choiniere. Satellites are built and flown so the end-users have the information needed to choose the best course of action, he said.
Meeting the timeline for a decision maker often requires persistent, continuous multi-spectral coverage that operates in the face of “natural and man-made interference,” Choiniere said, referring to jamming and space weather.
Webber said ground architecture is a priority, because the effectiveness of the space systems is null if the end user cannot receive the critical information in a timely manner.