Air Force focus on resilience means big changes for spacecraft manufacturing and testing

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PASADENA, California – The U.S. Air Force’s goal of responding to emerging threats with resilient satellite constellations it can build, launch and refresh quickly has important implications for spacecraft manufacturing and testing.

“The technical practices we employ today will continue to drive high costs,” David Davis, chief systems engineer for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said at the Space Tech Expo here. “That will be inconsistent with the resiliency and the proliferation. We need technical practices that are balanced with this overall program.”

Currently, the Air Force builds and tests satellites to ensure they can withstand radiation while in orbit for ten to 15 years. If the Air Force plans to update future constellations every three to five years, some spacecraft components may not be exposed to enough radiation to degrade performance. If radiation is less of a concern, perhaps the Air Force could take advantage of advanced technology developed for commercial markets like the automotive industry, Davis told SpaceNews.

Satellites built for shorter lifespans also may require different types of testing, more along the lines of what the Air Force calls Class C missions. The Air Force reserves Class C for low-to-medium cost demonstration or experimental satellites built to operate for less than two years.

Going forward, the Air Force would like to conduct operational missions with costs and manufacturing times similar to Class C but with less risk to the overall mission. That might mean accepting a higher failure rate for individual satellites but building more of the spacecraft to reduce overall mission risk, Davis said.

The Defense Department also is reevaluating its reliance on military grade electronics produced in the United States. One benefit of military grade parts is that the purchaser knows exactly how, when and where each part is made. As the Air Force and other members of the national security space community seek to adopt the latest technology, including commercial parts manufactured outside the United States, that degree of familiarity may no longer be possible, Davis said.

Still, the military and intelligence agencies will need to address security concerns to ensure components do not include malicious hardware or software that adversaries could exploit to compromise space systems. “We are working with the supplier base, trying to understand what we need to do to adopt [commercial] products,” Davis said. “How do we get the assurance we need for the applications we have?”