Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, speaks Sept. 21 at the AMOS conference. Credit: AMOS conference.

MAUI, Hawaii – The U.S. Air Force and Canada are partnering on a proposal for an upcoming space surveillance mission, a senior Defense Department official said Sept. 21.

The Air Force expects to release in October a formal solicitation for its Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) follow-on mission to keep tabs on the geosynchronous-orbit belt some 36,000 kilometers above the equator. A fixed-price contract award is expected in late 2017.

One of those proposals is likely to come from a partnership between the Defense Department and Canada. Doug Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said during a question-and-answer session here at the AMOS conference that the Air Force and Canada are assembling a proposal that would allow the United States to stay within the Pentagon’s price requirements of about $400 million but could add further capabilities with contributions from Canada. This could include additional satellites or sensors.

Air Force officials have placed a high priority on the SBSS follow-on system because geosynchronous orbit is home to the Defense Department’s most crucial satellites for missile warning and nuclear command and control. U.S. defense officials say space capabilities and national security satellites are increasingly threatened by Russia and China and therefore merit a watchful eye.

The current SBSS satellite, the Block 10 pathfinder, launched in 2010 and performs its mission from a sun-synchronous, low Earth orbit. It is expected to reach the end of its design life around 2019. When Air Force leaders discussed a follow-on system in 2014, they said the system would likely consist of three satellites, also in low Earth orbit. Then, in 2015, Air Force officials said they were open to a hosted payload approach. Then, in July, the Air Force said it had re-phased the SBSS program and since then Air Force leaders have stressed they are open to any approach that meets their requirements and stays under the $400 million cost threshold.

This is where a joint proposal from the United States and Canada may work.

Canada and the United States previously have worked together on national security space programs. Canada is part of a five-country consortium that invested in the ninth satellite in the Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom communications system in exchange for access to the WGS system.

In the case of SBSS, U.S. officials have said repeatedly that space situational awareness is not exclusively the domain of the United States and that international partners are key to the success of space surveillance efforts.

During a July 29 industry day, in a formal question-and-answer session posted to the Federal Business Opportunities website, one representative asked the Air Force if the government was “open to international partnerships, such as the Canadians?” The Air Force replied that it was investigating that option.

Further details of the proposal were not immediately available.

Maj. Gen. David Thompson, the vice commander of Air Force Space Command, said Sept. 21 the Air Force was open to solutions that include all orbits and said the Pentagon does not want to appear “prescriptive.” He also said that it is not clear what role, if any, the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space office, which is used to develop space capabilities to plug gaps or address emerging military needs, may play in the follow-on mission.

However, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory is building the ORS-5 space surveillance satellite, also known as SensorSat, to scan the geosynchronous-orbit belt from low Earth orbit. That satellite is scheduled to launch on an Orbital ATK Minotaur 4 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in late 2017 as bridge between SBSS and any kind of follow-on system.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.