AF Space Command Eyes Common Satellite Control Standards

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SAN FRANCISCO — A U.S. Air Force Space Command team is developing a new strategy for satellite operations that reduces the service’s reliance on separate, mission-specific ground control systems and antenna networks in favor of standardized equipment that can be used to support multiple spacecraft, according to Air Force officials.

The new strategy, called the Satellite Operations Enterprise Roadmap, is designed to save money and make it easier to combine information gathered from multiple spacecraft, Col. Jay Moody, deputy requirements director for the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., said during a briefing presented April 15 at the Space and Missile Systems Center’s annual Industry Days conference in Long Beach, Calif.

Members of the Requirements Directorate at Air Force Space Command’s headquarters, who are leading efforts to draft the roadmap, are expected to present recommendations for transforming satellite operations later this summer to Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command. If approved, the plan will “set the course for transforming Air Force satellite operations,” Moody wrote in an e-mail to Space News.

“Today, Air Force Space Command operates multiple, independent, stove-piped satellite control systems,” Moody wrote. “Through consolidation of satellite control requirements and the use of open, service-oriented architecture, Air Force Space Command intends, where operationally efficient, to reduce long-term operations and maintenance costs.”

The effort to address shortcomings in the current satellite operations network began Dec. 23 when Kehler sent a memo to commanders of the 14th Air Force and Air Force Space and
Missile Systems Center as well as directors at Space Command headquarters calling for “transformation” of the entire satellite operations enterprise. “Fiscal realities, operational efficiencies and emerging threats require us to reevaluate our construct for conducting [satellite operations] of our on-orbit systems,” Kehler wrote in the memo. “We are going to move expeditiously toward open/service-oriented architecture [satellite operations] ground network systems for AFSPC satellite programs.”

As part of that transformation, Air Force officials are expected to create a set of common interface standards and protocols that will make ground control systems interoperable. The new standards and protocols also are expected to improve the ability of Air Force officials to merge information derived from different sources, Moody wrote.

Space industry executives added that the use of common standards and protocols for satellite control systems is likely to increase competition for Air Force contracts. In addition, the Air Force may save money if it begins to purchase satellite equipment in larger quantities to serve multiple missions, they added.

Air Force officials are expected to derive additional savings by reducing the cost of developing individual satellite ground control equipment and antennas, maintaining that equipment and training service personnel to work with the equipment, Moody wrote. Satellite ground systems operators perform many of the same routine tasks, such as charging batteries and moving satellites into the correct orbital position, an industry executive said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if all missions used the same products so the enlisted personnel tasked with reconditioning batteries could contribute to any mission?” he said.

While industry officials welcome the move toward standard architecture, they caution that it will be difficult to convince mission managers to relinquish control of certain aspects of their ground operations networks. “It would be impossible to suddenly produce a one-size-fits-all common architecture,” one space industry executive said. “Even if the Air Force follows an incremental approach, whose requirements get satisfied first?” he asked.

As part of the new strategy, Air Force officials also will be evaluating how the service can save money and improve operations by relying on automated satellite control equipment. At the same time, service officials will evaluate telemetry, tracking and control antenna networks to determine how emerging technologies, such as in-band telemetry, tracking and control and cross-linked satellites, can improve the ability of these networks to serve multiple missions, Moody wrote. The term in-band refers to systems that send data along with the information needed to identify and process that data on the channel or band. Cross-link communications systems are designed to enable satellites to receive commands from ground stations and distribute those commands to other spacecraft.

In addition to providing position, navigation, missile warning and communications services to U.S. troops, the Air Force also provides telemetry, tracking and control capabilities to intelligence organizations and civil space users. As the Air Force moves toward a new strategy for satellite operations, one important goal will be ensuring that any changes proposed do not deter Air Force Space Command from serving those communities, Moody wrote.