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HOT TOPIC: Lockheed Martin intent on winning back SBIRS. Artificial intelligence could turn satellite business on its head
One of Lockheed Martin’s most prized military satellite programs is being nixed by the Air Force as the military seeks to transition to more resilient, less expensive systems. The Air Force decided to stop buying SBIRS (Space-Based Infrared system) satellites after the sixth one is completed in 2020. But Lockheed plans to compete aggressively to build the future SBIRS, whatever that might be. “We think we’re in a good position to go after that,” Jeffrey Smith, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s military space business, told SpaceNews on Monday.
The company already has responded to an Air Force request for information for a “block 0” of the next-generation missile-warning system, Smith said. After decades of developing and manufacturing SBIRS, the company believes it has a winning proposal for the new version, although Smith would not discuss specifics. A key feature in a new satellite is that it has to be able to integrate any payload, and have an open architecture.
Lockheed also is about to submit a proposal for the next generation of GPS 3, a program it has owned for a decade and where it will likely face tough competition. The strategy is to make the manufacturing process efficient and lean. The company last summer started construction on a 266,000-square-foot “Satellite Factory of the Future” outside Denver. The $350 million “Gateway Center” will be a paperless, digitally enabled environment to produce satellites for government and commercial customers.
About 60 percent of GPS constellation that is in operation today was produced by Lockheed. Smith said the company is especially eager to get the first GPS 3 of the current generation into orbit later this year. A new Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite also is scheduled to launch this fall.
Big future for AI in commercial satellites
Richard Ambrose, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and president of the company’s space business area, said a partnership with artificial intelligence software firm NEC to analyze data collected by sensors in space is beginning to pay off.
AI software was used to analyze sample data from commercial satellites that were experiencing failures. The analysis revealed that every one of those failures was predictable, Ambrose said Monday at Lockheed Martin’s media day in Arlington, Va. This type of predictive analytics could help satellite operators save billions of dollars over time. “Imagine taking that data across 43 other satellites we have in orbit. … We would use AI to make satellite designs more robust,” he said. “AI could turn this part of the industry upside down.”
Ambrose said Lockheed is watching the market and trying to decide how far to push into the commercial side. Only 2 percent of Lockheed’s business is non-governmental but the space sector is different because so much of the action is happening outside government. “We track over 900 startup companies,” he said. “There is a a lot of money coming in.”
Is there a “convergence” between commercial and government space? So far, said Ambrose, “It’s hard to say how deep that’ll be.” There are many unknowns, such as how much will the U.S. government buy from commercial providers? “I don’t think it’s either or,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a hybrid architecture.” The big question is what markets will emerge, he asked. “And what capabilities and services will people be willing to pay for in the future?”
Warrior mentality at Air Force Space Command
“We are at the warfighter table. We are not in the cheap seats anymore,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Guastella Jr., director of integrated air, space, cyberspace and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations at Air Force Space Command.
At Space Command, leaders are trying to bridge the cultural divide between the air and space professions to create a more cohesive force of space combatants. “We are in a cultural shift to a warfighting mentality,” he said last week.
The Air Force is now staging “Space Flag” war rehearsals in virtual-reality simulations. The idea is to give them “realistic training,” Guastella said. But better training technology is needed. Current space simulators were designed for a “benign environment,” he said. The Air Force has requested funds in the Pentagon’s 2018 and 2019 budgets for systems that simulate contested space environments.
Another shift at Space Command has been the addition of intelligence officers and analysts. Foreign powers threatening satellites are a relatively new concern for the United States. As space forces take on warfighting and deterrence roles, they need better intelligence, Guastella said. “We have increased the intelligence manning across the command, from the squadron level, the group level, the wing level,” he noted. “We are baking in the importance of intelligence into the space force.”
DARPA chief discusses agency plan to disrupt space business
DARPA has been vocal about the need to get the Pentagon to become less dependent on large, complex satellites in geostationary orbit. Its director, Steven Walker, says it’s time for DoD to shift future spending to constellations in low Earth orbit made up of dozens or hundreds of small satellites.
“We have been saying this for 10 years: We want to see a shift to LEO, get capabilities in larger constellations.” The more satellites in the system, the harder it will be for the enemy to take it down. “We have pretty capable small satellites.”
DARPA has invited companies to pitch ideas under a program called Blackjack. “We are looking at how we leverage the commercial sector at LEO, how we leverage the manufacturing of smaller cheaper satellite buses, and looking at how we put our payloads into those more affordable buses.”
Separately from the Blackjack project, DARPA officials planned to brief contractors this week on “how to technologically and culturally disrupt the space enterprise, from the ground up,” and how to bring about the “end of Battlestar Galactica” —a colloquialism for big, overbuilt satellites.
Rogers escalates feud with Air Force over space corps
Strategic forces subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers and the subcommittee’s top Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper presented a united front last week in a joint appearance, criticizing the Air Force for fighting back congressional efforts to reorganize space.
Both Rogers and Cooper sounded angrier and more frustrated with the Air Force than they were even a few months ago when they inserted language in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to create a separate space corps within the Air Force.
Cooper said space is a rare issue where a Republican and a Democrat are in complete agreement. “We are bipartisan. Still working on bicameralism.” The Senate did not spend enough time debating this topic and that is one reason why the space corps language was rejected. “Hopefully that will be corrected in the coming session,” said Cooper. Rogers estimated that organizing a space corps could take from three to five years.
ICYMI: ULA tightlipped about Vulcan engine
United Launch Alliance is not talking about when it will choose an engine for its Vulcan rocket. ULA officials have long indicated that the leading candidate is Blue Origin’s BE-4, but would wait until the engine completes a series of tests before making a decision. ULA CEO Tory Bruno, in an interview with SpaceNews last month, declined to say how soon that decision will be made. “I can’t talk about it. It’s an ongoing competition. It’s coming to the end of that process,” he said. Last April, during the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Bruno told SpaceNews that ULA could be ready to formally select BE-4 in as soon as 60 to 90 days. “But it could take longer,” he said. “It’s not on the calendar.”
Another option for Vulcan is AR1. Aerojet Rocketdyne has been covering one-third of the engine’s development cost under a cost-sharing agreement with the Air Force that the company is seeking to revise. Aerojet Rocketdyne throttled back its expenditures on AR1 last year. The Air Force, in a memo circulating on Capitol Hill earlier this year, said it was exploring options that would keep AR1 available as a “warm backup” on a slower development track.