WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force awarded a $1.45 million contract to Riverside Research to develop software that automates the analysis of data on space objects.  

The one-year contract announced last week is for the development of a software tool to help Space Force units characterize and detect objects in the more congested low Earth orbits, said Lt. Matthew O’Rourk, program manager for the DEEP-SDA project, short for Data Exploitation and Enhanced Processing for Space Domain Awareness.

This project is not about collecting more data, but analyzing the data that already exists and is not being put to use, O’Rourk told SpaceNews.

 “We’re looking to leverage data that’s being generated by assets that are already on orbit and are currently not being utilized,” he said. 

The nonprofit firm Riverside Research — with partners COMSPOC, Spire Global and SciTec Inc. — will develop an algorithm to automate current manual data exploitation techniques and produce more actionable intelligence, O’Rourk said.

For example, data collected by existing star trackers on commercial and government satellites gets discarded because it can’t be analyzed in a timely manner. 

A prototype version of the software will be tested by analysts from the specialized Space Force unit that works with commercial space data — known as the Joint Task Force-Space Defense Commercial Operations Cell or JCO.

O’Rourk said the project started about a year ago as the Space Systems Command’s space sensing office identified a need for technologies to fill gaps in space domain awareness of low Earth orbit. 

At the end of the project, Riverside Research will deliver a data analytics app that will be made available to all DoD and military users via the Space Force’s Unified Data Library, a marketplace for data and software. 

O’Rourk said the new tool should help make greater use of data hosted on the UDL. He said users of space data have expressed a need for analytics aids so they can take advantage of that data. 

“Our space domain awareness tool is an immediate solution to fill some of the gaps,” he said. The project also will support the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Spacewatch program.

DARPA’s program, called Space-domain Wide Area Tracking and Characterization, is pursuing technologies for persistent tracking of all objects in low Earth orbit so that when an anomalous action occurs, operators can be notified in a timely fashion.

The data will come from existing sensors on both commercial and government satellites with the goal of creating a “single operational picture” of low Earth orbit.

SpEC Consortium

The DEEP-SDA project was managed by the Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC), an organization under Space Systems Command that works with commercial firms and startups. SpEC awards contracts known as Other Transaction Authority, or OTAs, which move faster than traditional government contracts. 

“We decided to take the SpEC route so we could partner with non-traditional firms,” said O’Rourk.

The SpEC charges membership fees to participating companies and only the members of the consortium are allowed to compete for projects. The SpEC facilitates the bidding process but the contract winners are selected by the Space Systems Command. 

The SpEC is run by NSTXL, short for National Security Technology Accelerator. The company’s founder and CEO Tim Greeff said SpEC currently has more than 600 members, about 70% of which are non-traditional contractors that mostly do commercial work. 

Under SpEC OTA contracts, traditional defense contractors are incentivized to partner with commercial firms or to co-invest in projects.

The DEEP-SDA solicitation was issued in May 2023. Greeff said 10 out of 13 submissions were from small non-traditional contractors. About 63 companies were part of the 13 teams that bid for this project, Greeff told SpaceNews.

He explained that there are three types of companies that qualify as non-traditional contractors: Small businesses that are exempt from the Defense Department’s cost-accounting requirements; those that perform contracts only under commercial procedures; and those that only work under firm-fixed-price contracts.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...