WASHINGTON — Artificial intelligence is rapidly transforming the space industry, and one area where its impact is particularly significant is space domain awareness (SDA), or the knowledge and understanding of activities occurring in space.

By continuously analyzing the trajectories and behaviors of satellites, AI can rapidly analyze vast amounts of data from space sensors and help identify anomalies or potential threats. Notably, the capabilities of AI are enabling an array of commercial SDA services.

Companies like ExoAnalytic Solutions, which operates a global network of optical sensors, are offering satellite tracking services to operators in geostationary orbit. For prices between $1,000 and $4,500 per satellite per month, the company informs operators “of what they need to know, when they need to know it,” so they can ensure their satellites are safe, said Brien Flewelling, the company’s director of strategic program development. 

Another company in the SDA business, Slingshot Aerospace, recently unveiled an AI tool capable of flagging unusual satellite behavior and identifying “needles in haystacks” in orbit, such as a potential anti-satellite weapon. 

The U.S. Space Force, which is responsible for providing space domain awareness data for military operations, is currently refining its plan to leverage these commercial innovations. 

But the military is taking a cautious approach to adopting commercial SDA technologies. A recent report by Booz Allen Hamilton noted that despite the influx of new commercial players in this arena, traditional defense contractors still dominate military space domain awareness programs, with most of the spending allocated to government-owned sensors.

U.S. Space Command runs an experimental “commercial cell” that purchases raw SDA data from the private sector for specific projects. But DoD has not embraced the commercial managed services that provide insights and analytics. 

‘Understanding the market’

Col. Bryon McClain, who oversees space domain awareness programs at the Space Systems Command, says the military is keenly aware of the burgeoning commercial sector but remains uncertain about how to effectively integrate these new services. 

“I would say that the next step, when we start talking about commercial, requires an understanding of markets,” McClain said June 5 on a webcast event hosted by C4ISRNET. 

“We don’t always understand the markets, and market forces that are out there,” he said. 

McClain mentioned that military units are already experimenting with AI tools to help orchestrate sensor tasking based on specific threats or concerns. The goal is to leverage AI for broader data processing tasks, streamlining the process of sifting through vast amounts of data, he said. “So we’re continuously looking at what opportunities are out there and where we can blend them to that new technology.”

As highlighted in the U.S. Space Force’s new commercial strategy, said McClain, the idea is to figure out how to partner with industry. “And it requires us in the DoD to look at those marketplaces, look at those market forces.” For example, the government needs to have insight into whether a company is truly commercial or expects DoD to be the “anchor customer.”

Flewelling noted that the Space Force’s commercial strategy suggests a growing interest in these managed services, but the government tends to want to maintain control over the operation of sensors and the data they collect.

The Space Force, according to the strategy, “seeks capabilities from the commercial sector that can contribute to the holistic generation of SDA.”

Commercial insights ‘sharable’

From a transparency standpoint, Flewelling told SpaceNews, commercial SDA insights can have huge value because they can be shared with the public. 

In early 2022, ExoAnalytic Solutions provided crucial insights into China’s space capabilities. They released data showing China’s SJ-21 satellite docking with a defunct navigation satellite in geostationary orbit, shedding light on the country’s advanced maneuvering capabilities in space. 

The challenge for the Space Force is ensuring it can keep up with the rapid changes in the space environment. With more satellites in orbit, many performing complex maneuvers, an increasing amount of debris, and more frequent docking activities, the demands for intelligence will only intensify, said Flewelling. 

AI can yield powerful orbital intelligence — but only with sufficient data. To keep pace with these evolving dynamics, AI systems require constant access to up-to-date data feeds from a multitude of sensors, he added. This underscores the need for significant investments in sensor technology and data collection capabilities, both from government agencies and private sector companies. 

“The algorithms will mean little, no matter how advanced if there is insufficient data to ensure the required level of fidelity in the reconstruction of space system behavior is achieved,” Flewelling wrote in The Space Review.

Training AI and machine learning models requires high levels of skills, and the government will need the industry’s help in this area, he said. “There’s probably a lot more people in China who have those skills, and so we really need to figure out how to work together and march forward smartly, or we can be outpaced.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...