ARLINGTON, VA — Electronics in small packages can do big things in space. That sort of sums up the thinking behind defense industry giant Lockheed Martin’s move to invest in commercial companies that build tiny satellites and sensors, and develop data-crunching software.

The Orion deep-space exploration vehicle that Lockheed Martin is building for NASA will have miniature infrared focal plane arrays to, one day, map the surface of the moon. These are the some of the technologies that keep getting cheaper and better thanks to commercial innovations, said Keoki Jackson, Lockheed Martin’s chief technology officer who previously ran many of the company’s military space programs.

“We are happy to have access to low-cost satellite technology,” Jackson told reporters Oct. 11.

Lockheed is a $45 billion corporation with the majority of its business coming from government contracts. Last year company leaders decided to set aside about $100 million to invest in promising commercial technologies. One recent pick was Terran Orbital, a California-based manufacturer of nanosatellites.

Terran Orbital in part was selected for its sophisticated manufacturing process that could be a model for some of Lockheed’s military programs. Jackson said he personally led the first “cubesat” development at Lockheed. The company launched its first cubesat in 2003 on a mission to detect early signs of earthquakes.

Being an investor in Terran Orbital creates “opportunities for strategic technology insertion,” Jackson said, although he declined to discuss specific projects. “We need agility and speed,” he said, and “we see these investments providing capabilities for different missions.”

The U.S. government holds on to major weapon systems and space vehicles for decades, so prime contractors like Lockheed have to worry about keeping the technology current. “We’re a long-cycle business,” said Jackson. “Our challenge is how do we take technology and rapidly adapt it to continue to drive the relevance of existing platforms?”

Lockheed also is bankrolling companies that specialize in artificial intelligence and machines that can think autonomously. These are foundation technologies as “all systems rest on software,” said Jackson.

A “space fence” that the company is building for the U.S. Air Force to manage orbital traffic is technically a radar but more accurately can be described as an “information system,” said Jackson. The space fence radar at the Kwajalein Atoll is scheduled to become operational in 2019. Initially it will track about 20,000 objects in low-Earth orbit, but eventually will widen its scope to 200,000 objects, said Jackson. “Doing that is about how you organize and collate all the orbital information and determine what’s changed, what’s new.”

On the company’s loftier aspirations to play a lead role in human space exploration, Jackson said he is optimistic about the Trump administration’s promises to invest in NASA.

“Everything we see is a firm commitment to Orion and SLS,” said Jackson, referencing NASA’s future space launch system that is still undefined. He is encouraged by the surge in commercial investment and activity. “I think we’ll have a combination of NASA and commercial vehicles” as the nation seeks to return to the moon and also reach Mars.

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...