SkySats in orbit
Illustration of four SkySats, built by Space Systems Loral for Terra Bella. Spaceflight Industries will launch multiple satellites for Terra Bella on a dedicated rideshare mission slated for launch in late 2017. Credit: Space Systems Loral

WASHINGTON — For years Air Force officials have talked about building a “space enterprise” as a way to connect the military, the intelligence community and companies that are developing cutting-edge technology that the government needs.

But first, the Air Force says it needs to have in place a “space architecture” to experiment with new types of satellites, hosted payloads and encryption tools to protect space systems.

So a contract was awarded this week to SSL, a Palo Alto, California-based spacecraft manufacturer owned by Maxar Technologies, to help the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center figure out how to build that architecture.

A space architecture is needed to have a “more affordable and resilient national security space enterprise,” SSL said in a news release Jan. 31. The company will serve as a technical adviser to the Air Force, SSL spokeswoman Wendy Lewis told SpaceNews. An idea for a space architecture, for example, might involve a combination of small and large satellites in both low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit.

Other innovations that could be brought into the space enterprise are technologies to modernize the infrastructure, affordable access to space, commercial data processing, small satellites that could support future U.S. Air Force missions, and cyber-protected interfaces for hosting government payloads on commercial satellites.

Commercial satellites and space electronics could be tested for their “resilience capacity” — or how well they can be defended against the full range of known threats.

These efforts to bring commercial technology into military space programs is good news for the growing population of startups and other businesses that are investing in this sector, said Arun Kumar Sampathkumar, an aerospace and defense industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

“Based on our coverage of over 100 startups in the small-satellite/geospatial space, we believe, the U.S. Defense Department will see a lot of services meeting its needs, being offered at lower prices, prompting it to move further away from wholly owned operations to exclusive outsourced services where the DoD will pay private contractors for dedicated services,” he said. “This will be an interesting wait and watch.”

In space, as in other areas of national security investments, the government has to figure out, quickly, how to take advantage of the innovation that is coming out of the private sector and academia, said Chris Taylor, CEO of the big data analytics firm Govini.

The company just released a new report that tracks government spending in national security-focused technologies.

The military and its contractors have to step up amid a “great power competition,” Taylor said in an interview. “This requires large muscle movements. You can’t just move in the margins.”

In the 20th century, the United States achieved supremacy in space and in the military battlefield at large. But over the past decade, competitors have “leapt up the innovation value chain at a pace no one predicted,” said the Govini report.

Space capabilities, like others in the national security field, are becoming rapidly commoditized, which requires a new approach to insert emerging technologies into government programs, Taylor said. “This is what keeps American national security professionals up at night. The United States’ ability to innovate requires a “complete alignment” of American entrepreneurs, companies, industries, universities, research laboratories, and government agencies — to act as a network of people, knowledge, and capabilities to keep America safe.”

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...