CHANTILLY, Va. —  With a ceremonial ribbon cutting, the Space Systems Command on June 6 marked the opening of its new office and conference center dedicated to doing business with the commercial space industry.

The command named the facility COSMIC, short for Commercial Space Marketplace for Innovation and Collaboration. 

The Space Systems Command, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, oversees the majority of military space acquisitions programs. The new workspace in Northern Virginia will serve as the headquarters for the command’s new Commercial Space Office.

In remarks at the grand opening, Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, head of Space Systems Command, said COSMIC is a recognition of the critical role that commercial space technologies play in maintaining a competitive edge in modern warfare and national security. 

The sleek facility has 10,000 square feet of conference space and offices for unclassified gatherings. The Air Force Research Laboratory and the nonprofit Virginia Tech Applied Research Corp. are partners sharing the facility. 

Guetlein said that soon after the command established a Commercial Services Office last year — later rebranded as Commercial Space Office — he told its director to seek a location in Chantilly because of its proximity to the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and other government organizations that work with commercial space firms. 

“We needed a place where we could collaborate, a place where we didn’t have to fight through a lot of security to get to have conversations,” said Guetlein.

The Commercial Space Office, or COMSO, is led by Col. Richard Kniseley, who is based in Los Angeles. There will be a small permanent staff in Chantilly, mostly responsible for administration and contracts. 

COMSO is an umbrella organization for units that already existed, including the Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO), the Space Domain Awareness Marketplace, the SSC Front Door, SpaceWERX and the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve program (CASR).

‘All in the same fight’

Guetlein noted that the military for decades has worked closely with the private space industry but the environment is changing as DoD becomes more dependent on commercial systems. He alluded to the conflict in Ukraine where commercial satellite networks were targeted and are still under threat. 

“The thing that has really changed in the space environment is that we’re all in the exact same fight at the exact same time,” he said. 

“We’re all on the adversary’s threat list. They’ve declared every single one of us a target. Whether you are a government civil ally or even our commercial partners,” Guetlein added. “We’re all operating in the exact same environment subject to the exact same physics trying to vie for the exact same spectrum allocation. So we are all in this together.”

The CASR commercial augmentation initiative will look at ways to partner with commercial space companies so their services can be accessed during national security emergencies. 

One option is to create the space equivalent of the civil reserve air fleet, or CRAF, a program the Pentagon conceived 70 years ago to gain access to commercial airlift capacity in emergencies.

COMSO plans to hold another round of discussions with industry executives in July to figure out the way forward. 

“We need to make sure that we can rely on our partners to be there during a crisis,” said Guetlein. “Commercial partners have proven they are dedicated to being there during times of conflict. And commercial innovation is accelerating to a point where they are an absolutely incredible capability,” he said. “This is absolutely the right time to build new partnerships. 

Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, commander of Space Systems Command. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Cherie Cullen

‘Where’s the money?’

Guetlein noted that there is still skepticism in the space industry about government promises to spend more money on commercial products and services. 

“The one question I always get from industry every single time is ‘where’s the money?” he said. The Space Systems Command estimated it currently spends about $4 billion a year on commercial space services, mostly on satellite communications and data from commercial satellites.

The goal is to create a dedicated budget line for commercial services “to get better visibility into where those efforts are … and more importantly, so that we can be transparent with industry on where we are invested.”

Demand for commercial tech

During a meeting with reporters June 6, Kniseley said his office is working on several efforts to attract commercial vendors and create a demand from military users. 

The biggest piece will continue to be satellite communications, with about $850 million in commercial contracts projected per year across DoD. 

COMSO wants to expand online marketplaces, said Kniseley, similar to the one that already exists for space domain awareness data. 

The SDA marketplace now has 11 vendors offering commercial data on space objects and traffic in orbit. Companies have complained, however, that the marketplace does not generate significant revenue and that the Space Force is not fully taking advantage of commercial capabilities.

Col. Richard Kniseley heads the Space Systems Command’s Commercial Space Office. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Cherie Cullen

Kniseley said his office is working with U.S. Space Command to help build the SDA marketplace and integrate commercial data so it’s useful to operational commanders. 

A new marketplace was recently introduced for surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking (STR). This includes electro-optical and radar satellite imagery, and data analysis, although the specifics are still being hashed out with the NRO and NGA, the intelligence agencies that oversee procurement of imagery and analytics.

In recent weeks, U.S. Africa Command reached out to COMSO for help to pinpoint the origin of a chemical spill that was affecting hundreds of fishermen in Guinea, West Africa. “With commercial SRT data, we actually necked down the suspected culprits from 350 ships down to five. And we think we’ve already found who that culprit was,” said Kniseley.

In the SRT marketplace, he said, “we’ll work with the NRO on commercial imagery, but there are other vendors out there that aren’t necessarily on contract with the NRO that fill a different mission area,” he said. “I’m looking at this more from a tactical standpoint and less from a strategic standpoint, because we’re going to have to get quicker responses out to the tactical edge.”

Some new areas where the Space Force is considering buying commercial services include positioning, navigation and timing that does not rely on GPS, and weather data in support of military operations. 

Guetlein mentioned another potential marketplace is for data analytics focused on infrared satellite sensors.  

There is already significant work going on in that area at the Space Systems Command’s Tools Applications and Processing (TAP) lab in Boulder, Colorado, he said, where government analysts, private contractors and university researchers use artificial intelligence to analyze data from the military’s missile-warning satellites. 

The data is being applied not just for national defense uses but also for natural disaster response, fire fighting and other applications. 

“We’re going to stand up a similar lab in Colorado Springs for space domain awareness and a similar lab for surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking to expose all of that data at the unclassified level,” said Guetlein.

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...