DoD grapples with how to bring in new space technology to military systems

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Steve Butow, Defense Innovation Unit: “We need a logistics infrastructure that that's not exclusive to the military to civil space or commercial space."

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has built “very exquisite” satellites that operate for decades and is now looking to transition to a different space architecture that takes advantage of emerging technologies, Steve Butow, director of the Defense Innovation Unit’s space portfolio, said Feb. 10 at the SmallSat Symposium.

“If we’re going to do all the great things that we want to do in space in the 21st century, we have to migrate” to a new model where the government can develop modular systems using commoditized satellite buses and components, Butow said. 

The Defense Innovation Unit was created in 2015 to help accelerate the insertion of commercial technology into military hardware. 

“The 20th century model doesn’t exist anymore,” said Butow. In space, “We need a logistics infrastructure that that’s not exclusive to the military to civil space or commercial space but a logistics architecture,” he said. That would allow the government to buy new satellites, for example, and be able to periodically upgrade them with advanced sensors and processors using commercial space tug services. 

During a panel discussion at the SmallSat Symposium, Butow and other experts said a key challenge in creating a broad market ecosystem is agreeing on standard interfaces for space hardware so the entire space economy — government and private sector — could buy from the same marketplace.

Eric Brown, senior director of military space mission strategy at Lockheed Martin, said the company is working with commercial space businesses and startups so discuss “how we might be able to on ramp those kinds of great innovative new capabilities into the major missions.” 

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the military’s major satellite constellations including the Global Positioning System, missile-warning and communications satellites. 

The U.S. Space Force is studying ways to connect legacy satellites with new systems such as those being developed by commercial companies and by the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency, so data can be shared across different satellite constellations. 

The Space Development Agency is building a mesh network in low-Earth orbit known as the Transport Layer. Lockheed Martin is one of the companies selected to provide satellites to the Space Development Agency. “We’ve got to find a way that we can put new technology up,” said Brown, without sacrificing capabilities that already exist.

“There’s certainly been conversations I’ve heard and been a part of where people suggested a ‘cut and run’ type strategy and moving towards different building blocks that aren’t connected,” Brown said. The downside to that is “you’re losing out on the opportunity to take advantage of all the existing assets you’ve got,” he added. “Our ability to wage war in the future, to engage our adversaries, is going to come from being able to capitalize on everything.”