Space was the place, including for starry-eyed optimism: 5 Stories From 2021

Space-based solar power beaming (AFRL graphic)

By Theresa Hitchens,
Published by Breaking Defense, 27 December 2021

Among all the space action over the past year, AFRL’s push to expand military space operations to cislunar space — the vast volume of space between the Earth’s outer orbit and that of the Moon — and beyond has been a gift that keeps on giving.

WASHINGTON: Space was the place this past year. From floating billionaires to rockets for delivering military cargo to space weapons tests, there was so much going on it was almost impossible to keep up, much less choose the most significant stories of the year.

So instead, here is a list of five stories that each was in some way extraordinary or just plain fun to report and write.

1) Russian suspected ground-launched ASAT test scatters dangerous debris through LEO

Russia’s Nov. 15 use of a ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) missile to blow apart one of its satellites was bad enough. That act created some 1,500 pieces of trackable debris and tens of thousands of pieces of smaller, but still dangerous, junk that cannot be reliably detected and tracked, all at the busy orbital altitude of about 480 km. But it was an almost outrageous display of brass cojones for senior Russian officials, who most certainly know better, to then claim that somehow (magic maybe?) none of debris could even potentially imperil the crews aboard the International Space Station as the pieces tumble back into the atmosphere from above the ISS’s orbit. This story, however, gave me a chance to pen what I’m pretty sure was the best sentence I’ve written all year: “Space scientists and the laws of physics beg to differ.”

2) Sandia’s atomic ‘avocado’ could allow GPS-free PNT

The headline kind of says it all. The first-of-its-kind device is a vacuum chamber for containing clouds of atomic particles that drive quantum sensors — about the size of an avocado and weighing about a pound. That is small enough to enable highly accurate quantum positioning, timing and navigation (PNT) systems that in the future could be carried on vehicles, aircraft, satellites or even soldiers’ backpacks — providing an alternate, or even a replacement, for Global Positioning System satellites, which use highly accurate atomic clocks for PNT measurements.

3) Exclusive: Army plan may loosen IC grip on sat-based ISR

The saga of the Army’s decades long campaign to wrest some modicum of control from the Intelligence Community over when and how it receives intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data from satellites for tactical use was a blast to report. The story has everything: turf battles, budgetary back-stabbing behind closed doors, and potentially serious repercussions for future Army operations. And it ain’t over yet.

4) Solar power sats help drive DoD deep space push

Air Force Research Laboratory’s push to expand military space operations to cislunar space — the vast volume of space between the Earth’s outer orbit and that of the Moon — and beyond has been a gift that keeps on giving. The most intriguing, and arguably most way-out-there, element of all of the out-there elements making up AFRL’s cislunar research agenda is the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research (SSPIDR) program to develop foundational tech for solar power beaming satellites. In theory, space-based solar power networks are super cool: potentially providing electricity to far-flung military bases without the need for expensive, complicated and vulnerable fuel-supply convoy — or even serving as possible “gas stations” for spacecraft operating in cislunar space and further out in the solar system.

In theory, anyway. Pretty much every technology required to make such networks possible, from heat-resistant, light-weight materials to build the sats to the vast receiver arrays needed to collect the energy beamed to Earth, require serious scientific breakthroughs. Of course, space is a place that welcomes starry-eyed optimism.

5) Biden administration to propose new global norms for military space

Speaking of starry-eyed optimism: the silver lining to the cloud of concern raised by stepped-up testing of ASATs and enabling tech has been the shift in Washington toward a more whole-hearted embrace of the need for rules of the road for military space activities. The Biden White House seems to be even putting serious thought toward proposing a moratorium on testing of debris-creating ASATs — something that, despite years of rhetoric bemoaning such tests, the US government has been unwilling to commit to. Meanwhile, similar momentum is building at the United Nations, despite Russian and Chinese foot-dragging. Hey, it’s the holiday season, when a girl can always hope.

See: Original Article