Space Force eyes new breed of satellites that adjust their orbit and respond to threats

(Image credit: U.S. Space Force)

By Sandra Erwin,
Published by Space News, 14 December 2023

A more agile fleet requires making satellite refuelable and transitioning to modern ground systems

ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. military has long relied on large, expensive satellites parked in fixed orbits above the Earth. Some U.S. Space Force leaders believe it’s time to change that model in favor of more mobile and renewable satellites that can maneuver to avoid attack.

“We’ve got to be better at dynamic space operations,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, who runs the Space Force’s Space Systems Command and was nominated to be the next vice chief of the U.S. Space Force.

Speaking Dec. 13 at the Space Force Association’s Spacepower conference, Guetlein said the strategic competition with China in space will require the U.S. to shift its reliance on fixed assets in preset orbits to more “dynamic” systems — satellites that can move, be upgraded and adapt their tasks as needed. 

The concept was first unveiled by U.S. Space Command’s deputy chief Lt. Gen. John Shaw, who recently retired. He described it as the need for satellites to maneuver away from threats or towards objects of interest. 

Guetlein said the technologies needed to make this happen include new satellite designs with larger fuel tanks and ports for refueling or maintenance. In addition, in-orbit infrastructure must be in place to provide these services, as well as ground systems that are able to rapidly command satellites.

“We need to harvest stuff that’s available and be able to integrate it into our systems as soon as possible,”

Kelly Hammett, director of the Space Rapid Capabilities Office

Kelly Hammett, head of the Space Force’s Space Rapid Capabilities Office, said his agency is playing an increasing role in this area. 

The Space RCO directly supports the technology needs of U.S. Space Command and works mostly on classified projects. 

Hammett said he was struck during a visit earlier this year to the Harwell Campus space cluster in the United Kingdom by the number of companies working on orbital refueling systems. 

“In the U.S., we have one company that’s done it. And we have another company that’s proposed a standard and is trying to compete with the other company,” Hammett told reporters Dec. 13 at the Spacepower conference.  

“There’s a ton of technology and innovation happening in these startups and these privately funded companies internationally,” he said.

The ability to gas up satellites while in space has become a priority for Hammett’s top customer, U.S. Space Command. Hammett said Gen. James Dickinson, the Space Command chief, has mandated that future military satellites come equipped with universal refueling ports.

The main concern is that satellites launched into geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above Earth were built to remain in a fixed position, and they are vulnerable to adversary anti-satellite weapons due to their static nature.

The Space Force has expressed interest in buying commercial services to refuel and service satellites in geostationary orbit by the early 2030s. The Space Systems Command established an office to lead those efforts but has no steady funding. Only one project to date has been funded with a $30 million congressional earmarked budget. 

In the U.S. commercial industry, Northrop Grumman’s SpaceLogistics is already performing on-orbit services, and the startup Orbit Fab is gearing up to start demonstrating in-space refueling. 

“We need to harvest stuff that’s available and be able to integrate it into our systems as soon as possible,” Hammett said. 

Continuous maneuvering might not be realistic

Though acknowledging the allure of perpetual fuel, Space Force chief of space operations Gen. Chance Saltzman injected a note of skepticism.

“Fuel limitation on orbit has always been a major concern,” Saltzman told reporters Dec. 13 at the Spacepower conference. “Regret free maneuver is one of those phrases that we’ve always kind of aspired to.”

He said dynamic operations could become an “operational concept” in the future but more study and analysis is needed. “It’s a fascinating concept, and it would seriously change how you do space domain awareness,” said Saltzman. “Keeping track of a dynamically moving object is fundamentally different from anything we do now.”

But he said right now he views it as a “futurist” idea that is several years down the road. Saltzman said the Space Force needs to work with the “science and technology community to figure out what the contributing complementary technologies are.”

Ground systems for agile operations 

Beyond refueling, modern ground control software is another key piece of the Space Force’s vision for a more agile satellite architecture. 

Hammett’s agency is working on a ground infrastructure project called Rapid Resilient Command and Control program (R2C2), with the goal of developing modern tools for the operation of more mobile satellites.

The R2C2 is an effort to replace an earlier program known as Enterprise Ground Services, which ran into technical and schedule problems.

Hammett said the Space RCO restructured the scope of the former EGS program “to focus on the space warfighting missions for dynamic space operations.”

The RCO is now working with two commercial firms — La Jolla Logic and Integrated Solutions for Systems (IS4S) — on the R2C2 program.

“We have a whole bunch of other vendors getting ready to come on board,” Hammett said. 

He said the plan is to work with smaller commercial firms, as large defense primes often struggle with software programs. “We are trying to harvest small software companies that can do continuous delivery and production of software,” he said. In the R2C2 project, “the pool that is competing is large and they’re all interested. This is a crucial capability and they want to be part of it.”

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