U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Ted F. Bowlds Commander, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory Space is but one of three main focus areas for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), but recent events suggest it is going to get a lot more attention in the coming months.
‘s successful test Jan. 11 of a ground-based anti-satellite system underscores the vulnerability of the satellites that the
military and intelligence community depend upon to do their jobs. AFRL, meanwhile, is a leader in research aimed in part at making
space capabilities more robust.
For example, the laboratory, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in
, is developing technology that would enable satellites to detect potential threats and even take evasive actions. The lab also is in the thick of the Pentagon’s push for Operationally Responsive Space capabilities – low-cost systems that can be fielded relatively quickly and in relatively large numbers in response to emerging military needs. Several experts have said
‘s test underscores the need to be able to replenish satellite fleets quickly.
According to Air Force Maj. Gen. Ted Bowlds, who took command at AFRL in January 2006,
‘s anti-satellite test validates work already under way at the lab.
Bowlds’ background is primarily in aircraft-related activities, but he says the fundamentals of sound program management apply across AFRL’s three research domains: air, space and cyberspace.
While most of AFRL’s space-related research is conducted by the Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., Bowlds is quick to point out that that the information directorate, based at Rome Laboratory in New York, as well as the propulsion and sensors directorates, both headquartered at Wright-Patterson, play key roles as well.
AFRL’s annual budget includes about $1.5 billion in Air Force funding as well as $1.8 billion from other government customers. In the space arena, those customers include the National Reconnaissance Office and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as well as civilian agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Bowlds said.
The lab reached a significant milestone in December with the launch of TacSat-2, the first in a series of small satellites intended to test out a new paradigm in which military commanders have direct control of space systems – another capability that falls under the umbrella of Operationally Responsive Space.
Bowlds spoke recently with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.
Where does space stand on your priority list at AFRL?
It’s on equal footing with air and cyberspace. Those are the primary domains that we do research in. At the end of the day, we try to keep the investments equal. Sometimes investment in one is a little higher, sometimes a little lower. We keep them pretty level, which is not to say that we don’t sometimes get calls from champions of particular domains who want more attention given to their particular area, but by and large, we’ve been pretty successful.
The interconnected nature of our work can make it difficult to sort projects into a single domain; work with communications networks and laser technology for satellite cross links can make it difficult to define a project as solely space or cyberspace, though we try not to double-count them.
Has AFRL’s agenda for space changed at all in recent years?
It’s pretty close to what we have been doing for a while: Operationally Responsive Space – how to put together a satellite, launch it, turn it on and receive its data quickly; ground surveillance from space; space control, particularly space situational awareness; and global strike.
What has changed is the emphasis. I would say that Operationally Responsive Space is getting a whole lot more emphasis, and global strike is getting a whole lot less, than in years past.
How is TacSat-2 doing on orbit?
Once we overcame the communications issue that caused us to lose contact with the satellite for two days – from trying to communicate over the wrong frequency – we started making progress very rapidly. We probably lost a little ground while it wasn’t under our control, and the spacecraft got a little colder than we would have liked, but we’re bringing the experiments on line. The only further problem that we have had is an experimental solar array that is not responding properly, but we have a path to rectify it.
Could TacSat-2 play any sort of role in operations in
TacSat-2 is supposed to have a life on orbit for about a year. The most important part of the program is helping military space operators understand the realm of the possible for their operational concepts. If it performs well during the experiments for the first eight months, there may be some residual operational capability.
Can you give an example of how TacSat 2 might be used operationally?
Anything is fair game. Troops working at checkpoints or searching for improvised explosive devices could task the sensors and receive imagery very quickly – in minutes, rather than hours or days – to help them with their tasks.
Do you expect AFRL to have a role in the Operationally Responsive Space program office that the Pentagon is putting together?
Yes. If there was a program office, we could serve as a technical advisor. We would need to have a close relationship with a program office on structuring the experiments, and ensuring that we are aware of their requirements so that we can plan our investments accordingly to supply them with the right technology.
Is AFRL working on any systems that could disable or destroy satellites?
No. We’re not doing anything on the offensive side of space control. Our focus is on space situational awareness, and defensive measures, like an optical sensor that could be put on a satellite to detect other objects that may be approaching as well as technology that could help a satellite maneuver out of harm’s way, radiation hardening, and other ways to have a satellite protect itself.
AFRL is working on the Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space (ANGELS), which is intended to demonstrate a small spacecraft that can act as an escort for satellites in geostationary orbit by flying along side them and keeping tabs on objects nearby. Have you decided how are you going to get the escort satellite up to geostationary orbit for the experiment?
Not yet. ANGELS is like a next-generation system to our XSS-11 autonomous rendezvous experiment that was launched in 2005. It’s about 25 kilograms and is about the same size as a miniature refrigerator that could fit under a desk. We’re looking at a launch around 2010. It doesn’t need a dedicated rocket – it could go to low Earth orbit as one of the payloads on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle secondary payload adapter ring, and then use something else to take it the rest of the way. Or we could put it in a lower orbit, though that would change its life expectancy.
Is it technically challenging to develop a system like ANGELS?
To date, it’s doing well. I don’t think we’ve hit any technical issues. It’s nothing beyond the technical capability we have today. It’s within the realm of the possible.