Ground stations as-a-service struggle to gain foothold in military market

The 23rd Space Operations Squadron at New Boston Space Force Station, New Hampshire, operates satellite antennas that perform on-orbit tracking, telemetry, commanding and mission data retrieval. Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kaitlin Castillo

By Sandra Erwin,
Published by SpaceNews, 27 October 2023

Industry executives say military satellite operators are not taking advantage of commercial options to augment the Satellite Control Network

WASHINGTON — Decades-old military ground stations that track and control satellites are projected to run out of capacity as more spacecraft are launched to orbit. Despite a capacity crunch, industry executives say the military is not taking advantage of ground stations that are now provided as a commercial service. 

Commercial services could help the Space Force deal with a shortage of capacity at satellite control centers but face an uphill battle for acceptance, executives said last week at the MilSat Symposium in Mountain View, California.

“I’ve watched this problem for a long time,” said John Williams, CEO of Atlas Space Operations.

Williams is a former Viasat executive and retired military officer who operated satellites for the U.S. Air Force more than two decades ago.

The Space Force today relies on an aging ground infrastructure known as the Satellite Control Network, or SCN, to track launches and send commands to spacecraft in orbit. Despite upgrades and attempts to use commercial antennas, the Space Force faces a shortage of capacity, the Government Accountability Office noted in a report in April. The SCN, which includes 19 parabolic antennas distributed across several locations around the world, has been in operation since 1959. 

‘In fits and starts’

“I have the distinction of being a former Satellite Control Network commander,” said Williams, who noted that the Air Force, and now the Space Force, looked at commercial ground station services in “fits and starts over the years.”

The SCN illustrates the broader challenge the government continues to wrestle with, which is identifying what functions are “inherently military, versus what they’re willing to buy as a service from industry,” said Williams. 

Atlas Space Operations provides a network management platform that connects satellite antennas so unused capacity from one ground station can be leveraged by other customers in the network. 

“There are thousands of antennas out there that are underutilized. So if the government needed to expand rapidly, the way we would approach that is not to field another antenna,” said Williams. “We would take the government’s requirements, look at what size antenna, what frequency, what licensing is needed. And then we would work to find a solution that already exists.”

This would be faster than going through the whole procurement process of buying hardware, which can take years, Williams said. 

The Space Force, however, is now embracing commercially available solutions far more than it has in the past, said Williams, a trend he characterized as a “sea change” even though there are still government buyers who remain wary of commercial options.

Different perspectives

“We have a very different perspective on deploying capacity compared to the government,” said Glenn Barney, director of U.S. government programs at Kongsberg Satellite Services, known as KSAT.

GAO’s report on the problems in the SCN infrastructure “was really eye opening,” he said. The takeaway is that the SCN performs a vital function in the national security space architecture, but it’s been oversubscribed, poorly maintained and “fraught with obsolescence.”

The Space Force has dealt with these shortfalls by prioritizing usage to free up capacity. In the commercial industry, “we just go out and buy more antennas,” Barney said. 

To fix these problems in the long term, the Space Force has opted to invest in a major procurement of new antennas. The plan is to replace as many as 12 of the SCN parabolic satellite dishes with electronic phased array antennas now in development by BlueHalo under a $1.4 billion contract.

A program to bring additional commercial capacity at SCN tracking stations was launched in 2016, a project known as Commercial Augmentation Services (CAS).

But the initiative didn’t gain traction, Barney pointed out. 

“For four or five years we’ve been involved with the Air Force and Space Force on what’s called the commercial augmentation services program,” he said. “This started out with the recognition that commercial services are solving a capacity need.”

The program has been caught in “bureaucratic churn,” Barney said. Rather than figure out how commercial services can meet DoD needs, the discussion morphed into trying to get industry to develop products “that we don’t provide to commercial customers,” he added. “It’s completely changed from taking advantage of what exists to how do we get what we want?”

Outdated requirements

Williams said many in the military procurement bureaucracy prefer to buy bespoke systems “because they don’t know how to buy services.”

Government officials point out that they are required by DoD regulations to “follow the requirements,” he said. 

In the case of the SCN, some of the requirements are outdated so the Space Force is trying to buy replacements for technologies that no longer exist, Williams said. 

Some of the needs identified in the Satellite Control Network’s “core requirements document are not needed anymore. And they are requirements they want commercial to meet, even though there’s no commercial business case,” Williams added. “The folks that are embedded in the bureaucracy are protecting their jobs and will find any reason they can to throw roadblocks in your path on this.”

Williams said it’s important for the industry to inform the government on what technologies are available today and what is on the horizon. 

Lacking sufficient insight of what the market can offer “leads to inaccurate or not holistic requirements documents that come out,” he said. “Once they understand that, that will help them get what they are really looking for.”

“The biggest challenge for all of us on the industry side is helping the government understand what’s really possible,” Williams added.

While at Viasat, Williams worked with the Space Force on the CAS program. He said the project struggled to compete with the “traditional product buying mindset, and trying to fit this round peg into this square hole that they understand.”

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