Movement Toward Common Satellite Ground System Gains Momentum

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The U.S. Air Force is studying the feasibility of a common ground system that would be available in the early 2020s to track and communicate with national security satellites, a move service leaders see as a way to save money, increase capability and improve responsiveness.

Industry officials have long known that Air Force Space Command hoped to re-evaluate the ground system for many military satellite programs. Many Defense Department satellites have their own ground systems, an approach that is increasingly viewed as an anachronism.

Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, put a fine point on his views for the future of the ground side during a speech at the 31st Space Symposium here April 14.

“The only ground system we’re going to put on Schriever Air Force Base next is going to be a common ground system,” Hyten said. Schriever, located here, is the command and control center for several U.S. military satellite systems.

Hyten said moving away from ground systems uniquely tailored to specific satellites or constellations would save money, increase resiliency and allow the service to more efficiently use its airmen.

During an April 16 press briefing here, Hyten said the Air Force intends in the next two years to develop a new ground architecture, and a plan to transition to that architecture. That effort, Hyten said, will be led by Col. Troy Brashear, head of the advanced systems directorate at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.

The transition plan, as currently envisioned, would see the various satellite programs added to the common ground system during the 2020s as they are updated with new technology, several industry officials said.

Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon are among the companies closely tracking how the plan evolves.

“We certainly see the need and urgency Gen. Hyten is describing,” said Dan Hart, vice president of government space systems at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California.

Several industry officials said they expect the Air Force to pull elements of existing satellite systems into a new ground-segment architecture.

This could include the ground segment for the service’s Space Based Infrared System for missile warning, currently undergoing an update. Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Solutions of Herndon, Virginia, is the prime contractor on that system.

The service also is developing a new ground system known as the Operational Control Segment, or OCX, for its next-generation GPS 3 navigation satellites. That program, whose estimated cost is now nearly $1.6 billion, is being developed by Raytheon Intelligence Information and Services of Dulles, Virginia. Raytheon officials say the Air Force is looking at the OCX, which has had developmental challenges, as a potential pathfinder for higher levels of cybersecurity.

Several high-ranking Air Force officials, meanwhile, mentioned the Multi-Mission Satellite Operations Center (MMSOC), a satellite control architecture designed primarily for experimental and Operationally Responsive Space missions, during the Space Symposium. That system was developed by Lockheed Martin along with the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Development and Test Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. A second MMSOC is at Schriever. That system has been used for the launch of ORS-1 and will be used again for ORS-5, service officials have said.

Air Force leaders see the MMSOC as a potential model because it features a plug-and-play capability that makes it easy to improve and update technology.

“We’ve spent way too much money” on telemetry, tracking and control systems, Hyten said. Instead, he said, that money should be spent on satellite payloads.