WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is tasked with keeping a watchful eye on foreign rivals’ activities in outer space, and avoiding surprise attacks.

To accomplish these tasks the service can’t rely on existing technologies alone, and is turning to the private sector to fill critical gaps, officials said Aug. 12 during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies podcast.

Companies that can contribute innovations in threat identification, space awareness, on-orbit mobility and other areas related to space protection are urged to participate in the next Hyperspace Challenge scheduled for this fall,  said Matt Fetrow, director of strategic communication for the Space Rapid Capabilities Office.

The Space RCO, a Space Force agency responsible for providing technological solutions to military problems on a fast timeline, is co-sponsoring this year’s Hyperspace Challenge, an accelerator funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the SpaceWERX office. 

Whereas previous Hyperspace challenges were aimed at startups and small businesses trying to break into the defense market,  the 2023 accelerator is seeking more mature technologies. 

“By partnering with the Space Rapid Capabilities Office we’ve opened the door to companies with existing, mature technologies that could streamline the design, development, and deployment of a solution within the next few years,” said AFRL.

The Space RCO, located at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, decided to co-sponsor the fall cohort “in large part so we can better understand where the innovation is for awareness of space threats, what might be out there in the commercial industry that we could leverage in the future,” Fetrow said. 

“I’d like to encourage companies that are pursuing products and services that might in some way help us in space protection,” he said. 

Interested companies can sign up for a webinar scheduled for Aug. 16. 

The Space RCO is responsible for filling technology gaps identified by U.S. Space Command. The protection of U.S. satellites from electronic and physical attacks, and surveillance technologies to help discern bad actors in space are top priorities, said Fetrow. 

“For us the challenge as an acquisition organization looking to deliver capability is that it’s not always easy to figure out how you can take advantage of the products and services that companies might have,” he said.

But increasingly there appears to be a “wealth of commercial services applicable to our current focus, which is protecting space assets,” he added. 

“We’re now seeing companies pursuing all sorts of things that are relevant like refueling, orbit servicing or awareness as a service and even some companies are now talking about offering protection services which is just amazing.”

The Space RCO also hopes to hear from companies that might not be in the space industry but have technologies that could be adapted for space applications, Fetrow said. Technologies in the automotive industry, mobility solutions, manufacturing and even mining might have relevant applications for space, he added. 

“There is a lot of commercial innovation to get excited about,” he said. 

“What I am most intrigued by are on-orbit manufacturing capabilities being pursued by commercial, and also the pace at which they’re making progress in those areas,” Fetrow said. In a future where DoD wants to deploy highly maneuverable satellites, “I could see where those on-orbit servicing and manufacturing capabilities could really help the Space Force.”

‘A lot of gaps’ in space awareness

Although the Space Force has vast sensor networks and classified systems to track enemy activities, there are still unfilled needs, said Col. Eric Felt, director of space architecture at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.

“I see a lot of gaps in our space situational awareness capabilities,” he said. “So we have a long way to go.”

There is a need for more terrestrial and in-orbit sensors, Felt said. “There’s a need for sensors in more locations like cislunar space.”

And all that data, he added “has to be pulled together with data transport, and synthesized using appropriate tools such as AI and machine learning, and then presented to the operator.”

Having precise and accurate intelligence on what’s happening in space is of topmost importance as the Pentagon plans for future conflicts where satellites might be targeted, said Maj. Gen. Gregory Gagnon, deputy chief of space operations for intelligence.

Only a few years ago, space defense was not as high a priority as it is now, Gagnon said at a recent Space Force Association online forum.

“Just five years ago, you really had to convince people that the adversary was planning to take the war to space, and that the adversary planned to try to disrupt, degrade and deny our satellite capabilities,” Gagnon said. 

Today, he added, “the Department of Defense has internalized that completely. And now the discussion is not about the number of satellites we need. The discussion is about how much of a reconstitution force should we be budgeting for? How do we make sure that what we have is resilient in combat? They are asking those questions to us.”

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...