WASHINGTON — As new technologies pave the way for refueling satellites in space, the U.S. Space Force is exploring how to integrate these capabilities into its operations. A tabletop exercise dubbed “Parallax Rising 2.2” shed light on the strategic and logistical considerations involved in this emerging field.

Held in late August at the Space Systems Command in El Segundo, California, the exercise tackled the potential impact of in-orbit refueling on the management of critical assets in geosynchronous Earth orbit. SSC on Jan. 3 released new details on the exercise. 

The Space Force is currently conducting a “space mobility and logistics architecture assessment” to determine how best to leverage such technologies, alongside existing commercial offerings, said the news release. 

Parallax Rising 2.2 went beyond the technical aspects of refueling, delving into the policies and procedures necessary to ensure satellites receive timely logistical support, particularly in a contested space environment. Officials examined preferred types of refuelers and integration of commercial services with DoD capabilities for scenarios where conflict extends into space. The exercise also looked at applying refueling lessons from the Navy and Air Force.

“In today’s congested and contested space domain, enabling sustained satellite maneuvering is a priority for the U.S. Space Force,” said SSC. By contrast, the U.S. military traditionally has launched satellites into orbit and restricted their movements to conserve fuel. 

Too many maneuvers — either to avoid a piece of debris or a threat from an adversary — could completely expend a satellite’s fuel reserves, leaving it vulnerable to attack or collision. But with rivals fielding maneuverable spacecraft, Space Force leaders are calling for a shift to “dynamic space operations,” enabled by autonomous refueling and other in-orbit services.

Refueling ops in ‘contested space’

Lt. Col. Michael Killings, deputy director of servicing, mobility and logistics at SSC, said the focus of dynamic space operations is to ensure satellites can support a terrestrial conflict. “Parallax Rising was designed to contrast the decision steps, refueling considerations and implications of the contested space environment,” he said. 

Over three days, experts probed on-orbit refueling from several perspectives: What types of refuelers are preferred when conflict extends into space, and why? How would commercial refuelers be integrated with DoD refuelers? And what refueling procedures from the Navy and Air Force can be applied to the Space Force?

The Navy and the Air Force, for example, have their own tanker fleets to refuel aircraft in flight but are now starting to use commercial refueling services. The Space Force said it plans to use commercial satellite-refueling services but is also co-funding the development of a dedicated vehicle. 

Participants in Parallax Rising 2.2 included members of the Space Force field commands, technical advisers from the Aerospace Corp. and executives from the commercial industry. 

“Findings from the latest exercise will be analyzed and reviewed to inform future acquisition decisions and help develop the future U.S. Space Force architecture,” said SSC. 

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...