SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), a group charged with finding cutting-edge technologies to solve national security problems, is looking for space companies to provide persistent Earth observation, responsive launch capabilities and something like an Internet in space.

“We look at a lot of our legacy satellites the same way we looked at big mainframes computers in the past,” Air Force Col. Steve Butow, DIUx West Coast military lead, said Aug. 31 at the Space Technology Investment Forum here. “Small satellites, microsatellites and nanosatellites are more like the personal computers, tablets and cellphones of the future.”

Since the commercial sector brings technologies to the marketplace more quickly and less expensively than the Defense Department, “the takeaway is we should leverage these capabilities to help keep the U.S. at the forefront of space,” Butow said.

DIUx does that by dispensing with traditional Defense Department contracting rules. Instead of publishing lengthy requirements, DIUx identifies a problem and asks companies to explain how their commercial technologies could address it. Then, DIUx often pays companies to build prototypes of their technological solutions.

Since June 2016, DIUx has awarded 47 contracts with a total value of a little over $100 million. “Our $100 million, which is not large in the government context, is matched by $1.8 billion of venture capital equity investment,” Butow said.

On average, DIUx awards a contract within three months of publishing a solicitation. “We are set up for speed,” Butow said.

Space is one of five DIUx porfolios. The others are autonomy, artificial intelligence and machine learning, human systems and information technology.

The first space problem DIUx addressed was imagery. “A Defense Department customer said, ‘We need a persistent capability of doing day-night, all-weather imaging of the planet,” Butow said. “We are willing to sacrifice resolution to get frequent revisit rates. Small satellites are a great way to do that.”

DIUx now has “a handful of companies” working on solutions with the first satellite scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2018, Butow said.

DIUx does not publish a list of contract awards, preferring instead to led firms announce them. Capella Space, a San Francisco startup developing a constellation of satellites to provide synthetic aperture radar data, is one of the firms DIUx is working with in its quest for persistent imagery.

Now, DIUx is looking for responsive launch capabilities for small satellites.

“We want ready access to space and low-cost access to space,” Butow said. Even more than that, though, DIUx wants launch vehicles that can send every satellite into the most appropriate orbit for its mission.

“You should be able to buy a launch the same way you buy commercial shipping for packages to travel from point A to point B,” Butow said.

DIUx plans to begin awarding contracts for small launchers in September.

Looking ahead, DIUx wants to reduce the time it takes for data collected via satellite to reach its customer.

“A satellite collects something, but then we have to wait, wait, wait until that satellite gets over a ground station to download the data,” Butow said. “The information may be critical to a life-saving effort whether it’s Hurricane Harvey or something we in the military are trying to do. We are looking for commercial solutions to help us transfer that packet of information off that commercial small satellite almost as quickly as it was collected and get it somewhere.”

In the years ahead, DIUx may be looking to the commercial sector for other space technologies like sensors, rocket motors and other elements of a healthy commercial space supply chain, Butow said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...