Planting the seeds of technology for the future Space Force

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A conversation with Col. Eric Felt, director of AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate

The U.S. Space Force is small in size but big on technology. To stay ahead of rivals that are trying to compete with U.S. military might, the Space Force needs a research-and-development organization that brings a broad pipeline of ideas. That essentially is the role of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, Col. Eric Felt explained during a June 4 SpaceNews webinar.

The Space Vehicles Directorate, based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, works to “keep the pipeline full” and mature the technologies that might be needed in the future.

Felt compared his organization to a gardener who carefully selects, plants and cultivate seeds “so I’ve got the right stuff in the garden ready for harvesting when it needs to be.”

Following are highlights of the wide-ranging discussion edited for clarity.

Is the Space Vehicles directorate now part of the Space Force?

The directorate is one of 23 organizations that Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett designated to transfer to the Space Force. What that means is that about 700 billets and a certain portion of our dollars will move to the Space Force. But we will remain an AFRL unit so that we can still take advantage of all the synergies and the capabilities.

We are one of 10 directorates within AFRL and we are the one that is focused on satellite technology. We have a long history of maturing the components of satellites and then demonstrating new capabilities on orbit with integrated flight experiments and then transitioning those into operational capabilities.

There are a lot of technologies that are used in both the air domain and the space domain. So we’re going to have one AFRL perform science and technology functions for two services. We will have a part of AFRL that’s traceable to the Space Force and another part traceable to the Air Force.

What is the strategy to stay technologically ahead of adversaries like China?

The Space Force is going to be the most high tech and the most dependent on technology of all of the services. We want to make sure we have a pipeline that’s developing the things that will be needed. Having that pipeline is an element of strategic deterrence all by itself. If you think about it, your enemy knows that whatever they do, you will be able to quickly respond because you have this robust science and technology pipeline. So that is a part of our mission every day that influences the strategic calculus of our adversaries in space.

In early January, shortly after the Space Force was stood up, we met in Colorado Springs with the leaders and architects of the Space Force. The direction we got from the chief of space operations Gen. [John] Raymond was inspiring. He said, hey, you’ve got a blank sheet of paper. Everything you thought was wrong with the Air Force and not optimized for space, go fix it so we make our service the envy of all the other services.

That was a really inspiring vision for us to dig in and figure out. In my lane in science and technology, I have to figure out how should this process work, how should I make sure I take the inputs from the current programs and how do I push technology into military capabilities. We want to make sure that we have robust processes to do that. We will be working with the Space and Missile Systems Center which is going to be the Space Systems Command.

What are some of the most exciting projects you’re working on right now?

Last year we started a solar energy experiment we call “spider” (Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research, or SSPIDR). It is our vision for beaming power from space. It’s essentially a demonstration on a very small scale for converting solar energy directly into RF [radio-frequency] energy. And then you could beam that wherever you need it. You could beam it to a forward operating base on the ground. You could send it to a moving ground vehicle or an unmanned aerial vehicle, or to another satellite. We call that power on demand. That could become a logistical infrastructure capability that we might be able to offer to our nation. So I put that in the category of the pipeline that could be really game changing in 10 years. It is a super exciting program.

The SSPIDR program builds on some of the early Naval Research Laboratory work. We’ve discovered that while the idea has been around for a long time it wasn’t technically possible until recently. Now we actually see no insurmountable technical barriers to actually making this technology work. You’ve got the solar cells as mature as they need to be. We have the large structures in space. We are now at the point where they’re mature enough to go on to this next phase of the demo. We will put a 2-square-meter panel up in low Earth orbit and then begin to actually beam a tiny bit of power to the ground to prove the basic technologies. In the future we want to mature power beaming so that it will be ready to be harvested.

Tell us about NT-3, the AFRL positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) satellite scheduled to launch in 2022.

We’ve got a great program going. The name Navigation Technology Satellite-3 is super well chosen. The Naval Research Lab’s NTS-1 and NTS-2 flew in the 1970s and led to GPS. Now we have NTS-3. I like to call it the China-beating PNT satellite. It’s really getting after modern waveforms, modern ways of doing the positioning, navigation and timing mission so that those capabilities will be there when we need them the most in a high-end conflict in the presence of jamming.

How do you decide what projects are worth funding?

The best payoff comes from things that we’re not doing in space today but could be done. A great example is our experiment to put a Link 16 data link in LEO to see how it performs as a network relay. There are about 30,000 Link 16 radios across the U.S. military and NATO so it would be super powerful to be able to have that kind of a transponder available everywhere because the signals can’t go through mountains. It’s a great capability to do from space.

The Air Force Research Laboratory will launch in 2021 a small satellite equipped with a Link 16 military communications terminal that will operate in low Earth orbit. Credit: AFRL

This is something we’ve never been able to do before because our traditional communications satellites up in geostationary orbit are too far away. But if we have a proliferated LEO constellation then what we could do is put one of these Link 16 transponders onto each of these LEO satellites and you would basically have a Link 16 capability everywhere all the time.

If the Link 16 experiment is successful, that’s a great opportunity for us to partner with commercial companies that are putting up proliferated LEO constellations.

Another capability that we are not doing in space relates to the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System. We are now doing the data collection and processing on AWACS and JSTARS command-and-control airplanes that would be vulnerable flying over enemy territory. Those are ideal missions to also move to low Earth orbit and leverage some of the commercial capabilities that are up there.

We are also looking at what we could do in different nontraditional orbits. I’ve got one team that’s looking down at what we call VLEO, or very low Earth orbit. This is where you have to be thrusting all the time just to keep your satellite in orbit, at 200 to 300 kilometers. We didn’t use to be able to fly there very much because we didn’t have as good space propulsion as we do today.

Now we’ve got better technology for in-space propulsion and it opens up this new orbital regime for potential use. And I’ve got another team looking at cislunar or above GEO orbits for space domain awareness. You can’t do that very well from the surface of the Earth. So you need to have some satellites out there to do the space domain awareness mission.

All this is very dependent on the logistics infrastructure of how you get out there and support it in terms of communications, and positioning, navigation and timing. How do you know where you are? How do you refuel? All those logistical issues are really important as you get further out into the lunar regime. So I got another team that’s looking at that.

How does AFRL take advantage of private sector innovation?

I was excited to see NASA launching astronauts on the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle. That’s an example of public-private partnerships that saved NASA billions of dollars. We see that as a powerful model for the Defense Department. At AFRL we are doing public-private partnerships on a smaller scale. One area is in space domain awareness. AFRL, the Defense Innovation Unit and the Space and Missile Systems Center have been talking about setting up a “space commodities exchange” where products and services like space situational awareness data could be traded like commodities. It opens up the financial engine to optimize the price and the quality, where you establish certain quality standards for what you’re going to need.

Space domain awareness data might be a great example of the kinds of things that the Space Force could purchase through a space commodities exchange.

Innovative partnerships is one thing that the government can do to help the industrial base. We were concerned and are still concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the space industry especially for folks that rely on venture capital investment, and that’s really 80% of the tech investment that’s going on right now. So there’s a big impact when venture capital dries up.

OneWeb already went bankrupt. We’ve had a couple of other examples. Our nightmare scenario is that key space technologies will get bought at fire sale prices by foreign competitors. And that is a great concern to us. And so we don’t want that to happen. Our future and our continued lead and innovation in this area depends on that robust commercial side of things. It requires a very proactive view. We have to ensure we are all working toward this end state where we can maintain a robust commercial space entrepreneurial culture in the U.S. That is the key to our continued success as a nation in space.


To view the webinar, go to: https://spacenews.com/spacenews-webinar-nurturing-key-national-security-space-technologies/

This article originally appeared in the June 15, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.