U.S. Space Command sending strong demand signal for commercial space services

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Dickinson: Greater collaboration with the commercial industry is 'absolutely where we have to go'

COLORADO SPRINGS – U.S. Space Command, a military combatant command responsible for operations in outer space, needs more access to cutting-edge technology from the private sector, the head of the command Gen. James Dickinson said April 5. 

Of particular interest are services now offered by private companies that track space objects and analyze the data, he said at a news conference at the 37th Space Symposium.

Dickinson said he recently submitted to the Defense Department a “commercial integration strategy” calling for more government-industry partnerships to give Space Command easier access to commercial space services. 

Greater collaboration with the commercial industry is “absolutely where we have to go,” said Dickinson. The command needs better space domain awareness and other capabilities, and is looking for commercial industry to contribute to that, he added.

The existing processes for buying services from industry “need to change because the times have changed, capabilities by the industry have changed, and many more companies are providing those services,” said Dickinson.

According to a summary of the strategy handed out to reporters, Space Command is interested in commercial capabilities in space domain awareness, command and control, artificial intelligence and big data management, modeling and simulation, space control systems and satellite communications and terminals.

“How can we do that better? How can we make it easier, more efficient, more feasible for a commercial company to enter into an agreement with us and participate, for example, in space domain awareness?” he asked. Space Command does not manage procurements but does put forth requirements that the Pentagon has to approve so they can get funding. The Space Force, meanwhile, is standing up a new office to buy nontraditional commercial space services and is now trying to figure out contracting mechanisms for services like space domain awareness.  

Data as a service

The military has established strong relationships with commercial satellite communications providers but needs to broaden its reach to newer sectors of the industry, Dickinson said. Partnerships with companies that provide space data as a service would help Space Command because the military does not have sensors that can monitor every area of space and many companies now have sophisticated sensor systems. 

Space Command has set up shop at the Catalyst Campus in Colorado Springs where space startups write software code and develop software apps used for space domain awareness. That connection is helpful but the command needs commercial companies to be more integrated into its day-to-day operations, said Dickinson. 

“We need information to understand what is happening in space,” he said. “This is all about location. Because in order to be able to observe the space domain for any of the orbital regimes, you have to be in certain parts of the world and we’re not in all those parts of the world. That’s just a fact,” he said. By partnering with companies that help fill those gaps, “we can build a common operating picture in the space domain so we can have a better understanding of what we’re doing and what’s happening.”

“There are companies today that have those capabilities that are ready to contribute,” he added. “Our pacing challenge is China. So our ability to move quickly is very important.”

Having partnerships with commercial companies also improves the resiliency of military space systems because it adds more layers of capabilities, said Dickinson.  

A case in point is satellite imagery. The U.S. government operates its own spy satellites but by relying also on commercial remote sensing constellations, it is less vulnerable to disruptions if one or even a handful of satellites are attacked, he explained. 

The megaconstellations that the industry is building are “absolutely the resiliency that we’re looking for, the ability to have thousands of satellites,” he said. Enemies would “have to take out many of them to have any appreciable effect.” And the advantage of relying on commercial companies is that they have “the ability to rapidly replenish. That is really, in my mind, where we need to go and we’re going in that direction.”