Smallsats becoming a bigger part of DoD’s resiliency calculations

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"It’s okay if [a satellite] goes in the drink or fails on orbit if you know you can build another one in short order to get it back up.”

LOGAN, Utah – To create space architectures that can withstand system failures and attacks by adversaries, U.S. defense and intelligence agencies see promise in resilient networks built around constellations of small satellites.

“The tough part is not figuring out how to mass produce a satellite bus or build a lot of little payloads,” said Fred Kennedy, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Tactical Technology Office director. “The hard part is getting that entire network to be responsive to a bunch of requirements we have to satisfy soon.”

Defense and intelligence leaders have become increasingly vocal about threats to space systems and the need to stop buying what Gen. John Hyten, who leads U.S. Strategic Command, memorably called “big satellites that make juicy targets.”

Defense and intelligence experts speaking at the 2018 Small Satellite Conference here said satellites alone will not produce resilient space networks, but they are part of the solution.

The Army, for example, is exploring the use of small satellite constellations “linked together with multiple pathways that switch automatically,” said David Weeks, systems engineer and senior technical adviser embedded with the U.S. Army Strategic Defense Command in Huntsville, Alabama. This type of constellation will require an emphasis on security for the space and ground segments, added.

“Ground systems too often are thought about as an afterthought,” Weeks said. “They have to be directly addressed in the initial concepts as we go to stronger architectures.”

The U.S. Army and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency are voracious consumers of satellite imagery because both organizations are eager to keep watch on targets of interest. In the past, both organizations relied almost exclusively on large government owned and operated satellites. While that is beginning to change, widespread adoption of inexpensive commercial satellites and data sources requires a cultural shift, the panelists said.

“We have a risk-averse culture,” Kennedy said. “It wants to spend a lot of time testing and fixing and testing reviewing. That’s a problem in the defense community because we are outside the turning radius of our adversaries. Our adversaries are figuring out how to do things more quickly, more cheaply.”

To begin addressing that problem, DARPA created the Blackjack program which seeks to develop a satellite constellation in low Earth orbit to offer persistent, global coverage for military operations. DARPA is interested in the “ground segment, the space segment and the user segment,” Kennedy said. “We want it all and we want to change the culture, because if things get cheaper and simpler to build, if we can innovate more rapidly, we won’t care about losing stuff. It’s okay if [a satellite] goes in the drink or fails on orbit if you know you can build another one in short order to get it back up.”

NGA is grappling with even more fundamental change due to an overwhelming number of data sources and little time to analyze the data and offer answers to its customers, said Gregory Black, NGA senior geointelligence authority for commercial imagery and services.

To make sense of all the available data, NGA needs to augment its machine learning and machine vision capabilities, Black said. That requires “cultural change on every level, from trusting others to help us get answers to trusting machinery, which is one of the biggest conceptual challenges for geographers or analysts on the intelligence side.”

Still, change is happening. About 20 percent of NGA’s intelligence missions are “being met through something other than a national source or a national supplier,” Black said.

The Army, meanwhile, is looking to commercial industry for small satellites and small payloads “all the way from cubesats up to a couple hundred kilograms,” Weeks said.  “We can build more of them faster and less expensively as long as everything is tied together as an intelligent system.”