U.S. Air Force Space Command believes that the use of space systems in support of hurricane relief efforts along the U.S. Gulf Coast will serve as a case study for the use of satellites in future responses to natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Gen. Lance Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the command is working together with U.S. Northern Command to identify ways that space can play “a more direct role” in responding to future emergencies in the United States. Northern Command was established to handle homeland security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Lord said during a Sept. 13 interview that while there is this ongoing effort to identify improvements in the way that satellites are used in emergency response, it also is worth noting that space assets have played a key role thus far in the hurricane relief effort.

Col. Jay Santee, commander of the 21st Air Force, has been working alongside military officials in the U.S. Defense Department’s Joint Task Force Katrina to coordinate the use of space assets, Lord said. Joint Task Force Katrina was established at Camp Shelby in Mississippi as the Pentagon’s primary outlet for assisting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s efforts along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Santee coordinates space capabilities for the Katrina task force through the Joint Space Operations Center, which was created earlier this year at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The military provided relief workers with imagery from both classified intelligence satellites and commercial sources. Lord said satellite imagery was instrumental in giving government officials a full understanding of the magnitude of the damage along the Gulf Coast.

Commercial imagery has often been provided through Eagle Vision mobile ground stations, Lord said. Eagle Vision includes an antenna to receive commercial images and a facility the size of a small truck trailer to process the data.

The military also has relied on the U.S. Army’s Spectral Operations Resource Center, which is based in Colorado Springs, Colo., to provide updated high-resolution commercial imagery. That imagery has been used to identify which streets may be passable and which remain under water, and what areas may be safe for helicopters to land, according to a Sept. 13 Army news release.

The Spectral Operations Resource Center also contributed staff to a joint Pentagon team analyzing data from an airborne hyperspectral sensor that is looking for gas stations and other sites that could pose environmental threats to relief workers, according to the Army news release.

Other space systems that have seen use in response to Hurricane Katrina include the Global Broadcast Service (GBS). GBS, which is built by Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co., is a ground station that relies on communications bandwidth from the U.S. Navy’s Ultra High Frequency satellites as well as commercial constellations to receive imagery and video.

In recent weeks, GBS has been used to provide military units like the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, which is on the ground in New Orleans, with video and imagery of the disaster area for search and rescue operations and other humanitarian efforts, according to a Sept. 9 Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center news release.

Brig. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, system program director in the Space and Missile Systems Center’s military satellite communications joint program office, said in the news release that GBS is providing hurricane responders with “widespread, near real-time distribution of information.”

Meanwhile, some congressional aides have been critical of the Air Force for failing to develop new space systems for homeland security in direct response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. While homeland security and the war against terrorism have provided momentum for budget increases that make it easier to fund space programs, new satellites for these missions have yet to emerge, the aides said.

However, Lord said that the Katrina response indicates that the Air Force’s portfolio of current and planned systems will be effective for homeland security. Air Force Space Command currently is pursuing the development of small satellites and near space systems that can be launched on short notice, and Lord said the Katrina relief effort prompted discussion between him and senior leaders including Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley about how those could play a role in future terrorism or natural disaster responses in the United States as well.

Near space systems placed at altitudes of about 20 kilometers could host communications relay payloads that would extend the range of communications devices used by responders on the ground, Lord said.

Constellations of several small satellites could be launched quickly into highly elliptical orbits to provide broad area imagery directly to military commanders, he said.