The U.S. Air Force’s Space Development and Test Wing (SDTW) historically has been known for proving out new space technologies before they migrate to operational craft, the atomic clocks at the heart of GPS navigation satellites being a classic example, but the growing capabilities of small spacecraft are nudging it into more of an operational role.
Among the projects on the wing’s plate today is the first nonexperimental spacecraft for the Pentagon’s Operational Responsive Space (ORS) Office, which is co-located with SDTW at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. ORS-1, scheduled for launch late this year, is intended to serve what the Pentagon has characterized as a pressing need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data at U.S. Central Command, which manages operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
SDTW also is responsible for managing the Air Force’s fleet of Minotaur small rockets, which utilize excess strategic missile motors and typically are used to launch experimental satellites. However, a Minotaur 4 rocket, the largest of the fleet, recently launched the Space Based Space Surveillance satellite, designed to keep tabs on objects in geostationary orbit, in a mission Col. Michael Moran cites as an example of SDTW’s growing operational role.
In addition to the ORS Office, SDTW collaborates closely with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland, and has a leading role in the Space Test Program, which finds rides to orbit for experimental payloads developed by organizations throughout the Pentagon.
The wing, which had a $335 million budget in 2010, has two operations centers that control five satellites serving military users and weather and climate researchers. Development of the wing’s next-generation Multi-Mission Satellite Operations Center is nearly complete and will allow the Air Force to operate different types of satellites with the same system.
Moran spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.
What is the relationship between SDTW, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate and the ORS Office?
There is a huge partnership among the three. AFRL spends its time and efforts developing the technologies that will enable future space systems. It’s recently been focused on many technologies that would be enablers of more rapidly built and affordable space capabilities. The ORS Office really is the primary architect for rapidly developed, operationally focused space capabilities. It works with U.S. Strategic Command to help translate requirements into solutions, then it looks to SDTW and others as the primary executing agents for the solutions it would like to execute and demonstrate.
SDTW really brings together the technologies that AFRL develops and the requirements and architectures that the ORS Office is considering to actually deliver responsive space capabilities to the warfighter. We are the “get ’er done” part of responsive space.
What satellites are coming up on your launch manifest?
We’ve got a pretty large docket of launch activities planned for the next 12 months or so. Launching the Space Based Space Surveillance satellite marked a pretty big transition for SDTW, because typically our launches have been conducted for the research and development community. Increasingly, operational missions are looking to SDTW to meet their needs as truly operational missions are becoming smaller in size.
Our next launch will be the Space Test Program-26 mission, which will launch this fall on a Minotaur 4 rocket out of Kodiak Island, Alaska. It will be our first mission to use the Standard Interface Vehicle platform. We hope that by using a common spacecraft bus and common interfaces for many of our experiments we will be able to drive down cost and delivery times to orbit. We have more Standard Interface Vehicles in acquisition for future missions.
By the end of the year we will launch the ORS-1 satellite on a Minotaur 1 rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. Next year we have a rapid pathfinder program we will launch for the National Reconnaissance Office on a Minotaur 1 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Then we will launch the TacSat-4 experimental communications satellite on a Minotaur 4 from Kodiak Island, followed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2B mission on a Minotaur 4 from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
How does the Space Test Program decide which experimental payloads will be launched?
It’s a very rigorous and defined process at the Defense Department level called the Space Experiments Review Board. Through this process, a prioritized list of experiments is produced based on an interagency assessment of the potential military utility of each experiment. The list currently contains about 62 experiments. Through the Space Test Program, we look for ways to get those experiments to orbit.
Are you considering the Falcon rockets built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) for any missions?
We base these decisions around mission need. If we need an astronaut to interact with the experiment, we’re going to be looking at the space shuttle or perhaps a Japanese or Russian rocket to get to the international space station. We are currently looking at the rideshare options for the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, and of course the Minotaur fleet. With the Falcon 1e and Falcon 9 rockets, we’re very excited to see an emerging launch capability within the industry, and we are actively looking at how best to partner with SpaceX to provide low-cost, reliable launch services when best matched with our mission needs.
What satellites does SDTW operate?
We operate the Communications/Navigation Outage Forecasting System spacecraft built by AFRL. Our forces around the world critically depend on GPS navigation and satellite communications, and periodically the space environment can become charged in a way that can affect our space systems. This satellite predicts when those disruptions will occur so warfighters are able to have good situational awareness information to do effective combat mission planning. The Coriolis satellite that we operate also monitors solar activity that can affect satellites, and it provides ocean wind vector data as well.
We are operating TacSat-3, which features a hyperspectral imager and entered operations earlier this year after a demonstration phase. We also operate the Radcal satellite that the military uses to calibrate its ground radars. We also fly NASA’s CloudSat spacecraft that provides three-dimensional views of clouds for weather and climate research.
Why does the Air Force need improved satellite command and control capabilities?
We need to drive cost down and operational agility up. In an era where we’re flying a lot of different, unique missions, the ability to fly a lot of satellites with the same ground architecture is critical. We’re developing right now the Multi-Mission Satellite Operations Center that we will begin using at our operations facilities by the end of the year. We’re also building that same exact ground system at the 50th Space Wing at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., so they can fly operational missions using the same ground system.
By building a single ground architecture, we can very rapidly transition research and development capabilities to the operational world. Many of our systems today are focused on one operator talking to one satellite at a time. In the world of cubesats and small spacecraft, there is a lot of work to be done to figure out how we can best command and control large quantities of small spacecraft, some of which may be working together. While we’ve been doing orbital operations for 50 years, there are definitely some new capabilities our operators are demanding and technology is affording us the ability to provide.
Does SDTW have ties to human spaceflight?
We have a very tight linkage to human spaceflight. SDTW has a team of folks co-located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston that is the single Defense Department face toward NASA for all payloads that fly on the space shuttle or are headed for the international space station. Some missions we fly are ones that we might later want to retrieve from space, so the ability to get those down from the station is a unique opportunity. I think we’ve flown 250 payloads on the space shuttle. There are four experiments flying on the space station today, and five more are planned to go up on the next space shuttle launch in November. We will continue to do that in the post-shuttle era as well.