Space Force thinking about NASA-style partnerships with private companies
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force will be far smaller than the other military services but way more dependent on technology to do its job. While the Space Force will develop satellites and other technologies in-house, it also plans to follow the NASA playbook and team up with the private sector, said Col. Eric Felt, head of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate.
Speaking at a SpaceNews online event June 4, Felt said NASA’s commercial crew program is “super exciting” and one that the Space Force can learn from.
The launch of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on May 30 that took NASA astronauts to the International Space Station was the “culmination of perhaps the most successful private-public partnership of all times,” said Felt.
The Space Vehicles Directorate, located at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, is one of the organizations that Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett agreed to transfer to the Space Force. Felt said his office will remain at its current location but approximately 700 people will be reassigned to the Space Force
“The Space Force is going to be the most high tech of all of the services,” said Felt.
Public-private partnerships like NASA’s commercial crew deals with SpaceX and Boeing have saved NASA billions of dollars and serve as a “powerful model” that the Defense Department could adopt, said Felt.
AFRL is applying the model albeit on a smaller scale, Felt said.
There are many commercial capabilities that can be used to meet military needs, he said. For space systems one way to do that is with a “hybrid architecture.” AFRL, for example, is conducting an experiment integrating data from 266 commercial remote sensing satellites with dedicated national satellites “to create a capability that’s much more robust and resilient than just any one piece of that all by itself.”
Another area suitable for public-private deals are data services to help the Space Force monitor every object in outer space, a discipline the U.S. military calls “space domain awareness.”
He noted that commercial companies now have powerful sensors and data analytics systems to track and investigate space objects.
AFRL, the Defense Innovation Unit and the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center have been talking about setting up a “space commodities exchange,” for example, where space services could be traded like commodities, said Felt.
“It opens up the financial engine to optimize the price and the quality, where you establish certain quality standards for what you’re going to need,” he said. “The space domain awareness data might be a great example of the kinds of things that the Space Force could purchase through a space commodities exchange.”
The space commodities exchange is “one of the experimental business models that we’re working towards in the public private partnership area,” said Felt.
Opportunities with LEO constellations
Companies that are deploying broadband constellations in low Earth orbit also would be candidates for partnerships where satellites would host government communications payloads, he said.
AFRL next spring will launch an experimental cubesat equipped with a Link 16 encrypted radio frequency data link widely used on U.S. military and NATO aircraft and ground vehicles to share information
The Link 16 cubesat would serve as a communications network relay in space.
“This is something we’ve never been able to do before because our traditional communication satellites up in GEO [geostationary orbits] are too far away,” said Felt. “But if we have a proliferated LEO constellation then what we could do is put one of these Link 16 transponders onto each of these LEO satellites and you would basically have a Link 16 capability everywhere all the time.”
If the Link 16 experiment is successful, said Felt, “that’s a great opportunity for us to partner with these commercial companies that are putting up proliferated LEO constellations.” He said there are about 30,000 Link 16 radios across the U.S. military and NATO so “it would be super powerful to be able to have that kind of a transponder available everywhere because the signals can’t go through mountains. It’s a great capability to do from space.”
Another opportunity to work with LEO satellite operators is for the deployment of sensors for the Air Force Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS. The program is looking at alternative platforms to integrate and analyze data during military operations.
The data collection and processing is currently done aboard large command-and-control airplanes that would be vulnerable flying over enemy territory, said Felt. “Those are ideal missions to also move to low Earth orbit and leverage some of the commercial capabilities that are out there.”
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