Pentagon Eyes New Imaging Capabilities, Ground Systems

by

WASHINGTON — With most of the big-ticket programs in its long-running satellite fleet recapitalization effort now under contract, the U.S. Department of Defense will focus this year primarily on helping the remote sensing industry buy a new generation of commercial imaging satellites and on procuring new ground systems to better exploit space-based information.

The Pentagon is also set to fundamentally change how it purchases and uses commercial satellite communications bandwidth in 2010.

In April, after several years of often heated debate about the structure of the U.S. overhead imaging architecture, U.S. President Barack Obama signed off on a plan that resembles the current construct. Forged by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, the plan calls for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to procure two highly sophisticated imaging satellites with capabilities similar to those of the spy satellites now in orbit. In parallel, the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) would fund two new commercial imagery satellites similar to those it helped data providers DigitalGlobe and GeoEye procure several years ago under a program dubbed NextView.

The NRO in 2009 contracted with incumbent spy satellite builder Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., to begin early development work on the more sophisticated satellites, which will feature imaging apertures measuring 2.4 meters across. The NGA is expected to issue a request for proposals in January or February for new commercial satellite capabilities, and is expected to issue multiple contracts in the spring, industry sources said. It remains to be seen whether Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe and Dulles, Va.-based GeoEye will face competition for the contracts.

Under the NextView program, the NGA guaranteed to purchase a certain amount of data over a several-year period and also provided up-front funding to finance DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-1 and GeoEye’s GeoEye-1 satellites, both of which are now in operation. It remains to be seen whether NGA will take that approach on the follow on program, dubbed EnhancedView, or simply make data-purchase guarantees that enable the providers to raise enough private capital to build their satellites.

Another prize that will be contested this year is a follow-on to the Air Force’s Space Based Space Surveillance satellite, which is designed to detect and track objects in geostationary orbit. The first satellite, built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., under subcontract to Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., is expected to launch this year. The Air Force intends to kick off this summer an open competition to build the follow-on satellite, with a contract award expected in mid-2011, Air Force spokesman Joe Davidson said Jan. 15.

On the ground systems side, the Air Force is still deliberating over which company it will tap to build the ground segment for its next-generation GPS 3 navigation constellation, which is expected to begin launching in 2014. Northrop Grumman Mission Systems of Reston, Va., and Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems of Garland, Texas, wrapped up work early last year on study contracts for the GPS OCX system. A prime contract award had been anticipated over the summer, but was was delayed and is now expected in the next few months, Davidson said.

Another new ground system the Air Force intends to put under contract this year is the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) Mission System. The JSPOC at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is the operational nerve center for the military’s space systems. As the space environment becomes increasingly complex and crowded and the Air Force continues to field new sensors for keeping track of objects in space, the JSPOC Mission System is needed to integrate many different types of situational awareness information to manage assets in the space domain. Industry expects to see a request for proposals issued in the spring, with a contract award in the fall.

One of the more dynamic areas of military space procurement these days is satellite communications, where demand for bandwidth is expected to continue to exceed capacity for years to come. Early last year, the Defense Department canceled a program that was supposed to be a big part of the answer, the futuristic Transformational Satellite communications system. That left a void that the military is now scrambling to fill, and part of the solution could be block upgrades to systems already in operation or under development. These systems include the Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom and Advanced Extremely High Frequency systems. Also under study are relatively new concepts such as hosting dedicated Defense Department payloads aboard commercially owned communications satellites.

However, no new acquisitions for upgrades to existing systems or hosted payloads are on the near-term horizon, Air Force Col. Charles Cynamon, director of the advanced concepts group at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a Dec. 8 interview.

However, Lockheed Martin Space Systems is expected to be awarded this year contracts to build the fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite and the third satellite in the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System narrowband communications constellation.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon last year revealed plans for two new commercial satellite bandwidth procurement contracts. The Navy is phasing out its use of L-band ship-based satellite communications terminals in favor of new C-, Ku- and X-band terminals and corresponding bandwidth. Under the new Commercial Broadband Satellite Program, the Navy will choose a single prime contractor to provide satellite capacity, ground station services, terrestrial connectivity and operations and maintenance for an end-to-end network at a cost of up to $600 million over five years. The Navy continues to deliberate its choice of prime contractor.

The Defense Information Systems Agency, which procures commercial satellite bandwidth for all of the other military services, will also change its approach this year to procuring commercial capacity. Under the current contracting vehicle, the agency uses three reseller companies that compete for task orders to provide everything from simple bandwidth to end-to-end managed networks. Under a new contracting vehicle, called the Future Comsatcom Services Acquisition, the agency will have greater flexibility in how it procures commercial bandwidth, including the ability to contract directly with commercial satellite operators and to enter into multi-year leasing arrangements. A request for proposals is expected this spring, and contracts are expected late in the year, the agency said.

Other, lower-profile procurements also are in the works.

Last summer the Navy initiated a competition to build its next-generation ocean altimetry satellite, known as Geosat Follow-On 2. The previous satellite, built by Ball Aerospace, launched in 1998 and lasted until 2008. Since then the Navy has been relying on the joint U.S-French Jason 2 satellite for tactical oceanographic data. The Navy is currently evaluating bids and will issue a contract this year.

The Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space Office is also expected to be active. The office is close to issuing a final request for proposals for the Rapid Response Space Works center, nicknamed Chileworks for its Albuquerque, N.M., location. Chileworks is being established to rapidly assemble military satellites to augment or replace existing space systems. One prime contractor will be chosen this year to run Chileworks.

In parallel, the office will award a separate contract for Chileworks’ first project, the Modular Space Vehicle, a radar satellite the office hopes to launch in 2012. Development of the Modular Space Vehicle is intended to work out the kinks associated with building and launching satellites on short timescales.