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Space Force starts launches for constellations of hundreds of satellites

Vandenberg AFB gets new U.S. Space Force name (U.S. Space Force photo by Airman 1st Class Rocio Romo)
April 17, 2023

For decades, a relatively few, huge U.S. satellites have patrolled from orbit to detect threats such as ballistic missiles. While still critical, American defense marked a shift in March when the first 10 of hundreds of planned military satellites launched from California.

As experts from around the world converge on Colorado Springs for the Space Symposium this coming week, managing and protecting tens of thousands of smaller, cheaper satellites, both military and commercial, projected to go into space is set to be major topic.

In the coming years, the large numbers of new satellites also means Colorado Springs companies will have plenty of work as demand for operators, ground infrastructure and support services grow.

“Colorado Springs represents an epicenter of satellite operations,” said Frank Backes, a senior vice president for Kratos Space Federal based in town. Kratos provides ground infrastructure, such as antennas, for satellites globally.

The U.S. is shifting its space strategy to detect ballistic and hypersonic missiles among other threats as China and Russia ramp up their capabilities in space. For example, China launched a missile in 2021 that maneuvered late in flight as a hypersonic guide vehicle, showing an ability to move around radar, said Space Force Lt. Gen. DeAnna Burt, deputy chief of space operations, for operations, cyber and nuclear. She described the Chinese as launching just as much into orbit as the U.S. and “pushing past us” in some cases in capability, during a recent event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

China and Russia have also both blown up satellites with missiles, demonstrating the threat they could pose to satellites that provide critical infrastructure, such as communications, navigation and imagery.

The Space Force wants to deter anti-satellites missiles by sending up hundreds of satellites so that an individual satellite would not provide an attractive target.

“It will cost more to shoot down a single satellite than it will to build and launch that single satellite,” said Derek Tournear, the director of the Space Development Agency, at the Mitchell Institute event.

The Space Development Agency, a civilian group within Space Force, is in charge of the new proliferated military satellite constellations of smaller, cheaper units. One type of satellite the agency is launching costs about $15 million, he said.

In contrast, a traditional military satellite launched last year was one of two in a $1.86 billion contract and weighed 5,000 pounds.

The satellite was the last addition to a constellation of satellites, known as the Space-Based Infrared System, operated by Buckley Space Force Base guardians, who are charged with detecting missile launches, space liftoffs and nuclear detonations.

Maj. Matt Garcia, the operations officer for the launch and test team for the satellite, was working at Buckley the day of the launch on Aug. 4 and spoke with the team at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida about the readiness of the ground infrastructure to talk to the satellite. He was also involved with the months of testing run from Buckley.

“It was just such a thrill personally,” said Garcia, an Air Force officer. “It is still very much a human story and a human endeavor.”

While the work went smoothly, it still took “daily miracles,” such as rewriting the schedule for launch after another unrelated mission saw changes in its timeline, he said.

The satellite was transferred into regular operations in March and currently the 2nd Space Warning Squadron at Buckley Space Force Base is using it to detect threats such as the ballistic missiles launched by Iran three years ago, Garcia said. The satellite was designed to last 12 years, but will likely last longer, he said.

The satellite was launched to geosynchronous orbit, 22,236 miles above the Earth. At that orbit, only three satellites are needed to see almost the whole planet, Backes said.

The new cheaper satellites will go up to 1,200 miles or less, known as the low-earth orbit, and the military will need many, many more of them to replicate the work of satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

However, they can be developed much more quickly compared to the large traditional satellites.

The first Space-Based Infrared System satellite was launched in 2011 and that long timeline gives other nations an opportunity to develop threats, Backes said. Now that’s changing.

“We are absolutely showing we have the ability to shorten our timelines and respond fairly quickly,” Backes said.

The new satellites the Space Development Agency just launched went from order to orbit in 27 months, Tournear said.

The 10 satellites that went up in March will be joined by an additional 18 and that set will demonstrate the new operational concepts, Tournear said.

In about 18 months, the agency plans to start launching another 150 satellites that will do, in part, missile warning and missile tracking. They will be ready for Space Force operations in 2025, he said.

The agency plans to launch hundreds of satellites and go out to contract regularly with companies to give more businesses the opportunity to build units.

Of the 10 satellites in the first launch, York Space Systems, a Denver company, made eight. Last year the company announced it would build another 42 satellites as part of a $382 million contract.

Tournear expects to keep the prices on satellites fixed and rely on the industry to provide additional capabilities, similar to the iterative improvements in cell phones.

The satellites will be run from new Space Operations Centers staffed by contractors at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, Jonathan Withington and agency spokesman said in an email. The centers will answer to Space Operations Command, with headquarters at Peterson Space Force Base.

In addition to expanding the military network, the Space Development Agency wants to tighten the working relationship between its satellites and commercial satellites, Tournear said.

Commercial satellites already provide constant services to the military, such as supplying imagery; however, that has become a point of conflict in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

If the U.S. classified satellites as critical infrastructure, in the same way, it classifies the power grid as critical infrastructure, the military would be obligated to respond to such attacks. But right now its a gray area, Backes said.

He expects one of the main conversations at Space Symposium to focus on managing satellites used both by business and for defense.


(c) 2023 The Gazette

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