SAN FRANCISCO – With the SpaceX dedicated rideshare launch, Atlas Space Operations marked an important milestone: welcoming its first Defense Department customer into its cloud-based ground station network.

Atlas provides access to satellites in orbit for commercial customers, including Space Systems Loral, BlackSky and Helios Wire, in addition to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Until FalconSat-6, the U.S. Air Force Academy’s 169-kilogram satellite packed with research experiments, however, Atlas had no Defense Department contracts.

“FalconSat-6 will be the first Defense Department satellite to use a commercial cloud-based ground network,” Sean McDaniel, Atlas chief executive, told SpaceNews. “This demonstrates the viability of a fully automated, cloud-hosted ground network operated and controlled via the Atlas Freedom platform for the Department of Defense and other government customers.”

Atlas began operating the Freedom network in January 2016. The automated ground network operates on Amazon Web Services (AWS), like the business venture Amazon announced in November.

“Atlas has been collaborating with AWS for years as our baseline solution for providing the world’s first fully managed ground station as a service,” McDaniel said.  Atlas also works with other large data centers to offer secure satellite links to customers, he added.

The Atlas Freedom Network includes 15 UHF, S-band and X-band ground stations. The network is scheduled to expand to 30 nodes by the end of 2019 and more than 60 by the end of 2020, including optical data links, McDaniel said.

Atlas also is working under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the Air Force as it develops Atlas Links, an electronically steered antenna array. In August, Atlas installed its first Links node with 16 antennas on the roof of a building in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In addition to FalconSat-6, Atlas customers hitching a ride Dec. 3 on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 64 small satellites were BlackSky’s Global-2 Earth imaging satellite and Helios Wire’s Pathfinder 2 Internet of Things satellite.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...