WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate over the next three years hopes to launch big-ticket military experiments, including a GPS-like navigation satellite, a solar power spacecraft and a deep-space mission to monitor regions around the moon. 

With these and other space projects in the pipeline, AFRL is looking to shore up its technical workforce and to partner with private companies, Col. Jeremy Raley, the new head of the space vehicles directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, told SpaceNews.

Raley, who assumed command of the directorate last month, said there is a growing list of projects on tap “and I need people who want to come here to New Mexico or otherwise partner with AFRL and work on these things.”

The directorate, with more than 800 employees and an annual budget for more than $500 million, performs some of the military’s most cutting-edge space experiments.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for young engineers to really have an impact,” Raley said. 

AFRL’s experiments are trying to answer questions such as how the military could deploy satellites between the Earth and the moon, use space to deploy new types of communications architectures and extend the lives of satellites in orbit. “Those are going to be huge things and exciting things to work on,” Raley said. “I need junior to mid level engineers who want to come here and make that happen.”

In addition to hiring people, the space vehicles directorate is looking for outside contractor help from the space industry, he said. 

Upcoming experiments

Before taking over the AFRL space vehicles division, Raley worked at the Space Force’s Space Rapid Capabilities Office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. 

While organizations like the Space RCO need mature technologies that can be fielded relatively quickly, at AFRL “we have to place a bunch of smart technical bets,” Raley said. Many of AFRL’s projects are in support of the Space Force.

An $84 million experiment scheduled to launch in mid to late 2023 is the Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3), which will fly to a geostationary Earth orbit to augment the positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services provided by GPS satellites.

NTS-3 will add a layer of resiliency to the PNT architecture, Raley said, but the “real victory” his office hopes to achieve in this experiment is to figure out how to develop and field user equipment on a rapid timeline so it’s available as soon as the satellite is operational. 

One of the problems in the GPS program has been the lack of synchronization between the deployment of satellites and the production of receivers. “We want to make sure that the folks who need to integrate receivers into aircraft, munitions and other systems that require PNT are able to leverage what we’re doing with the space segment, and we can actually move both segments together at once,” said Raley. 

Looking ahead to 2025, AFRL plans to launch a $100 million experimental satellite to collect solar power in outer space for use back on Earth. The demonstration, named Arachne, is one of a series of solar power experiments AFRL is looking to pursue. 

If Arachne is successful, it could help develop technologies to deliver solar power to military forces in the field so they can deploy without having to bring along massive fuel trucks. 

Also in the works is an experiment to monitor deep space beyond Earth’s orbit. Previously known as the Cislunar Highway Patrol System (CHPS), the experiment has been renamed Oracle. Raley said the lab decided to rebrand the project and select a name from Greek mythology, in line with NASA’s preference to name moon missions after Greek gods.

“Like NASA we’re going to be operating in those same spaces. And we’re going to be looking for smart ways to cooperate,” Raley said. Both NASA and DoD care about “domain awareness and understanding what’s going on out there.”

AFRL is evaluating industry proposals for Oracle, Raley said. “There’s a lot that we need to learn about how to operate, navigate and communicate from that section of space.”

A priority for the military is to “understand if other countries are operating out there, and what capabilities they have,” he said. 

However, he added, “it is not 100% clear yet that there’s a lot of military utility to operating in cislunar space. And so a lot of what we’re doing is starting to answer that question before the U.S. government makes a bigger investment in militarizing that space.”

Raley said he has not seen any of the proposals submitted for Oracle. “I’m anticipating that we will see several teaming arrangements where people take mature technologies in sensors, propulsion, navigation and timing, and bring those together.” 

The space vehicles directorate in July launched Recurve, a cubesat experiment intended to demonstrate radio-frequency links and mesh networking in space. 

Recurve, which flew on a Virgin Orbit small-satellite launch vehicle, is an example of low-cost experiments that AFRL wants to start ramping up to take advantage of new launch services that offer more flexible options. 

Autonomous satellite operations

Raley’s vision is not necessarily to come up with brand new experiments but to focus on key foundational technologies that could help the Space Force across all its satellite programs.

An example is autonomous command and control of satellite constellations, a capability that many private satellite operators have perfected but the military is still experimenting with.

This is important for the future of the Space Force, Raley said. “Getting our command and control right and getting some of this autonomy Incorporated is going to have an outsize impact on the economy of force.”

That’s another way of saying that the Space Force has a small workforce and needs to automate its operations as much as possible. “We’re not getting a bunch more people to come fly all the satellites,” he said. “As we move to larger numbers of satellites, we’re going to have to be very efficient in how we control those, and we’re going to have to learn what is the right kind and level of autonomy.”

With that goal in mind, AFRL is doing ground-based experiments using quadcopters in a cage and giving them an objective without telling them how to do it, said Raley. “We’re taking what we learn from that and starting to move toward what we can do on orbit with cooperative autonomous operation among satellites.”

One of the objectives is to have self-healing networks that autonomously reroute traffic when a satellite is jammed, for example. “If we are in a contested environment where somebody is denying us the use of a satellite, we have to figure out how to get the remaining satellites to replan the mission.”

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...