Vice President, Space and ISR Systems
Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems
With few new space programs expected to be started in the next few years, companies with work on critical existing space systems seem best-suited to weather the drought. As a payload provider for the nation’s new generation of missile warning and polar- orbiting weather satellites, that is just the position Joe Ensor finds himself in as head of Northrop Grumman’s Space and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Systems division.
The Space and ISR Systems division was assembled just over a year ago by combining Northrop Grumman’s space sensor houses in and , with its satellite ground systems group in , and the company’s command, control, communications, computers ISR group in , The division is a part of the $7 billion Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems sector headquartered in
Ensor’s division is a payload provider along with Lockheed Martin for the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS). His division also provided the payloads for all 23 satellites in the predecessor Defense Support Program constellation. The Space and ISR Systems division has instruments flying on the upcoming National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and its precursor mission, the NPOESS Preparatory Project. It also has built the payloads for the Air Force’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program since 1966, the last three satellites of which will launch over the next few years. A significant portion of the division’s work is classified.
In the data exploitation and dissemination arena, the Space and ISR Systems division landed two major program wins in 2008. Already the prime contractor for the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System, Ensor’s division recently fielded a similar proof-ofconcept system for the intelligence community, and has fielded and continues to develop a new exploitation system – dubbed NSG-Forward – for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. One major new piece of business the division may compete for this year is the Air Force’s Infrared Augmentation Satellite, a geosynchronous missile-warning satellite the Pentagon believes may be necessary to prevent a gap in coverage as the Defense Support Program constellation ages and SBIRS continues to experience delays.
The division also will look to apply its space radar expertise to civilian markets. The Space and ISR Systems division spent a lot of government and internal money developing the technology for the military and intelligence community’s Space Radar program and was the payload provider to both competitors before the program was canceled. The division now has an agreement with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to cooperate on future radar programs for planetary exploration and climate missions.
Ensor recently spoke about where his division is heading with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.
Why were the Space and ISR Systems division brought together last year?
We thought it made a lot of sense to take our sensors group and mission exploitation group and combine them with our distribution group, C4ISR Networked Systems, so that we can now do everything from sensing on orbit to mission processing and dissemination. For example, on the SBIRS program, we sense the photons on orbit with our payloads, we do the mission exploitation with our processing facilities, and now we marry that with the Distributed Common Ground System business that we have to do the dissemination. So we basically put an end-to-end systems solution in place.
How did the division perform financially in 2008, and how is 2009 shaping up?
We had a very good first year and met all our objectives. This year looks like we’re on pace to continue that good track record. A lot of our programs are in a cycle of continuing follow-on business and we don’t necessarily have to go out and win something to survive, so it’s a good place to be right now in the environment that we’re in. On SBIRS, we were awarded follow-on business there with long- lead procurement for the third and fourth geosynchronous satellites, and there’s talk of fifth and sixth satellites. On the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, we’re looking at life extensions on that program to try to continue to keep the constellation healthy until NPOESS launches. In programs like Distributed Common Ground System, we’re going into a longer-term Army contract. So overall, I see good forward progress in all of our programs.
What external factors will shape the division’s future?
As the financial crisis continues to loom ahead, everybody is aware there are going to be fewer and fewer new start programs. So one of the things we’re going to be looking at is continuing to execute on our current programs and ensuring we get the follow-on business. If you look at the Defense Support Program for example, we had a run of 23 satellites because they did their job and they did it well. Where the money is really spent on new programs is trying to get the first satellite developed, built, delivered, on orbit and certified. So if we can continue to build copies of what we’ve already built, and they continue to perform the mission, that’s where we’ll make the money and ensure a good, solid future.
Would you like to see SBIRS continue for as long as the Defense Support Program did, and would you compete as a prime contractor for a follow-on system?
Absolutely, I would love to see 23 SBIRS satellites built. As far as being a prime for a SBIRS follow-on, Northrop Grumman Corp. would be poised to compete as a prime, but not the Electronic Systems sector itself. When in 2002 Northrop Grumman acquired TRW Inc., now part of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, it signed a consent decree that it would not vertically integrate its space business. That means I have to continue to operate as a provider to all primes and not provide my technology exclusively to Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.
What are your plans for the Infrared Augmentation Satellite?
The jury’s still out on that. We are partnered with Lockheed Martin for the SBIRS program and derivative sensors. So we’ll honor that teaming relationship unless that program evolves into something different. Hopefully we’ll get the first geosynchronous satellite launched on time and there won’t be a need for a gap-filler. Also, I think there’s still some question whether that program will survive. The official word is there is a program going forward, but it needs to be fully funded and authorized by Congress.
What can you tell me about the space-based radar capabilities you have developed?
We’ve spent a lot of money over the years developing the next generation of active electronically scanned array radar technology for space. We’ve come up with a revolutionary low-power approach that uses small tiles that can be scaled up to whatever size aperture in space is needed. Now we are looking at leveraging the technology we’ve developed for the Defense Department into civil applications, and we have signed a Space Act Agreement with Goddard to find new applications for that technology.
What are the civil applications of space-based radar and what are your plans for cooperation with Goddard?
There’s a lot space-based radar can do in terms of monitoring, for example, the carbon in Earth’s makeup and how that changes over time. It would also be effective in imaging ice at the Earth’s poles. The beauty of radar is being able to image day or night, in all weather, in ways that electro-optical and infrared cannot.
Under our Space Act Agreement, we will cooperate with Goddard to conduct joint technology studies to see if there might be a future for some of our radar technologies in space science missions. There are a couple we’re looking at now, for example, a mapping mission of Venus to understand whether there was water there at one time and better understand the carbon background. But it’s more of a creative opportunity to see what we could do together. I don’t think we will see any missions in the next year or two, but maybe it will be something we will be working on together three or four years from now on a full program.
What opportunities do you see in the space situational awareness arena?
That’s a sensitive area I probably can’t talk too much about.