WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded BAE Systems a contract worth up to $12.8 million to develop a digital lab to help U.S. military commanders prepare for combat in outer space, the company announced Nov. 14.

The task is to create a virtual space-battle zone so U.S. military leaders can better understand the space environment and the potential threats.

“Military commanders must have superior space domain awareness in order to quickly assess, plan and execute operations in this increasingly complex environment,” said Mike Penzo, director of ground resiliency and analytics at BAE Systems, in Reston, Virginia.

DARPA dubbed the project “Hallmark testbed.”

The technology will help the military “quickly evaluate and integrate technologies for space command and control,” Penzo said in a news release. In a virtual space war setting, commanders would learn how to gain “situational awareness” — a tough challenge when the action is happening hundreds or thousands of miles above Earth. Awareness in the space domain means tracking and managing many thousands of objects that are moving at extreme velocities.

The testbed also would allow leaders to practice “multi-domain” operations so data collected in space, on land, in the air, at sea or in cyberspace can be combined and analyzed to support simultaneous space and terrestrial missions. DARPA describes it as a “flexible, scalable, and secure enterprise software architecture that would become the backbone of technology development and experimentation.”

The first phase of the Hallmark project focuses on space situational awareness and command-and-control technologies. Later DARPA wants to add new features to the system for “realistic, scenario-based exercises for testing space command-and-control technologies against sophisticated emerging threats.”

BAE will host exercises to collect metrics for Hallmark’s cognitive evaluation team, and to identify technologies for future use by the Defense Department’s Joint Space Operations Center and the National Space Defense Center.

DARPA launched the Hallmark project in 2016 to support military efforts to hone space war-fighting skills.

“Military commanders responsible for situational awareness and command and control of assets in space know all too well the challenge that comes from the vast size of the space domain,” DARPA said in a statement. “The volume of Earth’s operational space domain is hundreds of thousands times larger than the Earth’s oceans. It contains thousands of objects hurtling at tens of thousands of miles per hour. The scales and speeds in this extreme environment are difficult enough to grasp conceptually, let alone operationally.”

Current space awareness tools and technologies were developed when there were fewer objects in space. Only a few nations could even place satellites in orbit, and those orbits were easily predictable. “That situation has changed dramatically in the past decade with a developing space industry flooding once lonely orbits with volleys of satellite constellations,” noted DARPA. Against this backdrop, “commanders with responsibility for space domain awareness often rely on outdated tools and processes — and incomplete information — as they plan, assess, and execute operations in space.”

DARPA expects this technology will give commanders “unprecedented awareness” so they can shorten the timeline required to make decisions and take action.

The next phase of the project is a “Hallmark space evaluation and analysis capability” to be located in Northern Virginia. The analysis center would be used for development, integration, modeling, simulation and realistic testing of space command-and-control software and processes.

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...