ARLINGTON, Va. — Gen. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, said the U.S. Space Force has robust intelligence about what foreign adversaries are doing in outer space. Still, military leaders always want more comprehensive data and analysis about activities in orbit, he said March 27. 

“I don’t often get surprised by things I hear,”  Saltzman said at the Mitchell Institute’s Space Security Forum 

Awareness about potential threats and what other nations are up to in space is foundational to all military space activities, he said. But having additional sensors and analytics tools would further boost the Space Force’s visibility into technologies being tested by strategic competitors like China and Russia.

“You can never have too much space domain awareness,” Saltzman said. “The demand for intelligence is continuous, it’s ever changing.”

The Space Force uses the term space domain awareness to describe the capability to track and monitor objects in space. This includes both friendly and potentially threatening objects  like anti-satellite weapons and debris from collisions or explosions in space.

In remarks at the conference, Saltzman highlighted various threats in orbit that target U.S. satellites, particularly China’s development of ground-based lasers to disrupt and degrade satellite sensors, electronic warfare jammers targeting GPS and communications satellites, and anti-satellite missiles. 

Saltzman said space domain awareness is not just about taking pictures of objects but also being able to “maintain custody” of objects of interest. 

Maintaining custody of a target goes beyond simply knowing where something is in space. It refers to the ability to continuously track and monitor a specific object with a high degree of accuracy and for an extended period.

“This requires a tremendous network of sensors to continue that data flow,” said Saltzman. He noted that the Space Force will continue to invest in sensors that use various phenomenologies — including optical, radar and radio frequency —  but also in “tools to pull that data together, contextualize it, so decision makers can make timely, relevant decisions.”

Increased use of commercial data

Saltzman and other officials said space domain awareness is a task shared with allies and also with the private sector. The Space Force increasingly buys data and services from companies that can deliver specialized intelligence about objects circling the Earth.

That emerging demand was highlighted in a new report by the market research firm Quilty Space, which said space domain awareness represents a significant business opportunity for companies that build and operate sensors, and for new space companies that use small satellites to monitor outer space.

“DoD spends billions deploying and maintaining space situational awareness (SSA) systems in space and on Earth,” said the Quilty report. Three programs, the SilentBarker satellite system, the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC), and the Ground Based Optical Sensor System will collectively cost $2.6 billion from 2021 to 2027. 

“In the coming years, DoD, and soon the Office of Space Commerce, are anticipated to spend tens of millions of dollars on commercial SSA data buy,” the report noted. 

Quilty analysts said defense and intelligence agencies are likely to remain the industry’s primary customers. Meanwhile, “commercial satellite operators remain a challenging market for selling SSA data, given their reluctance to pay for data that is largely available for free through the U.S. government.”

The report said the more “disruptive” companies in the sector are developing satellite networks — or hosted payload systems — to monitor the space environment. Compared to ground-based sensors, Quilty analysts said, small-satellite networks in orbit provide higher fidelity data, and are especially useful for monitoring hostile or non-cooperative spacecraft and to perform visual inspections of commercial missions for things like anomalies or health checks.

Quilty Space sees a potential market for satellites that “focus not on mapping, but instead tracking specific high-interest resident space objects. Such use cases have strong appeal for DoD.”

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...