Air Force scours space for needle in haystack

The Air Force is encouraging the development of space situational awareness platforms to track satellites that can be smaller than a book and hard to identify from the standpoint of intent and ownership in increasingly cluttered orbits.

The yin-and-yang nature of defense, in which one segment of the industry develops a new capability and another area works to counteract it, is happening once again in the nascent business of operationally responsive space (ORS).

Two forces are in effect: those that are working to quickly and cost-effectively design, build and launch small satellites for data collection, and those that are designing space situational awareness platforms to track ORS satellites that can be smaller than a book and hard to identify from the standpoint of intent and ownership in increasingly cluttered orbits.

“The key is not just knowing where something is but knowing what it is, what are its capabilities and what are the intentions of its owners,” said Lt. Gen. Larry James, commander of the 14th Air Force, which is part of the Air Force Space Command, and commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space at Strategic Command, at the National Space Symposium in March.

“The Aerospace Corp. has flown cigarette-pack-sized satellites,” James said. “Space situational awareness will help us know what these things are.”

A steppingstone

The Defense Department's ORS efforts began in May 2007 when it established the Joint ORS Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. The ORS concept takes commanders' surveillance needs and translates them into space assets that can be quickly and cost effectively designed, built and launched.

DOD wants to take the lead in developing ORS systems. The department took a major step forward in late May with the launch of the experimental Tactical Satellite-3, which was designed in consultation with combatant commanders to provide data directly to theaters of operation within 10 minutes of collection. Coincidentally, the Minotaur rocket that launched TacSat-3 also carried NASA CubeSat Technology Demonstration experiments, another ORS-type program that included three four-inch cubed satellites.

“The TacSat program is a steppingstone for delivering operationally relevant space capabilities to the joint force commander, not to mention inserting mature technology that supports national security interests,” said Peter Wegner, director of DOD’s ORS Office at Kirtland Air Force Base.

TacSat-3 was designed for a one-year mission, and its primary payload is the Advanced Responsive Tactically Effective Military Imaging Spectrometer, which Raytheon built. The system will demonstrate its ability to collect hyperspectral imagery that it can transmit to commanders in near real time.

The TacSat-3 program is a joint effort of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Space Vehicles Directorate, the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center's Space Development and Test Wing, DOD’s ORS Office, and the Office of Naval Research.

Alliant Techsystems (ATK) built the spacecraft bus and will furnish the same bus for what it said will be DOD’s first ORS spacecraft, designated ORS Sat-1. The bus provides precision pointing, power and thermal management, orbital maneuvering, and payload support functionality.

Built under contract to the program’s prime contractor, Goodrich ISR Systems, “the integrated satellite will provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to satisfy an urgent and compelling need for the combatant commander,” said Tom Wilson, vice president of ATK Space Systems’ Spacecraft Systems and Services business.

ORS Sat-1 is planned for launch in 2010.

Spherical battlespace

With about 18,000 objects in orbit, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate space debris from what might be a newly launched surveillance satellite, particularly as satellites shrink in size. The limitations of ground-based sensors, which are compromised in daylight and certain weather conditions, encourage greater use of surveillance satellites.

That’s why most of the next-generation space situational awareness systems will be orbiting satellites rather than ground-based systems. The strategy is part of what Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, calls the spherical battlespace.

“The backdrop of the next space age will be dynamic, so flexibility and agility will be required,” he said at the National Space Symposium. “I think we will be looking at a spherical battlespace that starts at geostationary orbit and extends downward. In the past, we stood on the ground and looked up.”

Using a space platform to detect objects in deep space, particularly those in geosynchronous orbit, is the rationale behind the Air Force’s Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) vehicle, developed by Boeing and Ball Aerospace and Technologies. The satellite is scheduled to launch at any time. The launch is awaiting completion of an investigation into a recent failure of an Orbital Sciences Minotaur IV rocket, which shares components with the Taurus rocket that will launch the SBSS satellite.

Compared to previous space-based sensors, the SBSS satellite is said to have a twofold improvement in sensitivity, a tenfold improvement in capacity, a threefold improvement in the probability of detecting threats and a twofold improvement in the time it takes to detect threats, said Todd Citron, who leads Boeing’s SBSS program. The satellite also has the ability to upload new software to enhance its performance.

“With the two-axis gimbaled sensor, we have the flexibility to put the camera where necessary,” said Fred Doyle, vice president and general manager of the National Defense Strategic Business Unit at Ball Aerospace. A constellation of satellites is envisioned, but Boeing and Ball Aerospace are under contract to deliver only one, he added.

Additional space situational awareness satellites will assist DOD in eliminating some of the blind spots that now exist in surveillance coverage.

“We don’t have all the sensors we need for space situational awareness,” James said. “Most of our sensors are in the Northern Hemisphere, and we don’t see payloads that fly in the Southern Hemisphere right away.”

Future needs

The present and future needs for space situational awareness mean that DOD “will be in the SBSS business forever, just like we’re in the protected comms arena,” said Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, in response to questions from reporters at the National Space Symposium.

And even though most of DOD’s SBSS efforts are space-based, Payton said, there should be a mix of space- and ground-based sensors. Most of the interest in ground-based systems focuses on the proposed Air Force Space Surveillance System, better known as the space fence. It would be a series of ground radar sites that look straight up at objects in low- to medium-Earth orbits.

The Air Force has issued a request for proposals, and companies such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are expected to bid on the project.

“Several industry teams are looking at the design,” Payton said. “Should it be S band or UHF/VHG? Should it look and objects fly through it, or should its sensors sweep the horizon?”

Phase A, which involves pre-full-scale development of the space fence, will continue until early 2012, Payton said. Officials expect the first site to be operational in 2015 and might locate it in Australia because that country’s location would allow for good coverage.

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