WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force awarded Umbra, a commercial operator of radar imaging satellites, a $1.25 million contract to demonstrate the capabilities of space-based radar sensors to track moving targets on the ground.

Under the Small Business Innovation Research Phase 2 contract, announced Aug. 22, the Air Force will work with Umbra on “space-based moving target indication.” 

Based in Santa Barbara, California, Umbra operates a constellation of six high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites.

The use of radar satellites to track moving targets was identified as a top priority for the Department of the Air Force. The U.S. military for decades has relied on radar-equipped aircraft known as JSTARS — or Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System — to discriminate targets against the ground clutter. 

Air Force and Space Force leaders in 2021 revealed plans to work with the U.S. intelligence community to pursue a space-based target tracking capability to replace JSTARS. These aircraft require large crews and are vulnerable to enemy air-defense missiles when flying over combat zones.

“With the end of the JSTARS program, Umbra understands the national imperative to develop a multi-domain replacement capability with a strong space-based element,” said Jason Mallare, Umbra’s vice president of government programs and strategy. 

Mallare said Umbra intends to provide “affordable spacecraft and ground infrastructure.”

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...