Unified and integrated: How Space Force envisions the future of data-sharing for space operations

By Jaspreet Gill,
Published by Breaking Defense, 24 May 2023

If a modern integrated operations network is the foundation of the home, the Unified Data Library is the electricity flowing through it, Space Force Chief Technology Officer Lisa Costa told Breaking Defense. Also, the SpaceVerse will come into play somewhere down the line.

WASHINGTON — The Space Force over the next few years plans to build out its vision of what is essentially an everything network for space operations where it can receive data from just about any source in any format and make it available from a cloud-based repository — at speed — to other organizations that use different systems and on different levels of classification.

It’s an ambitious effort in which a new “integrated operations network” (ION) is the foundation and an updated Unified Data Library (UDL) holds the goods in a way others can get to it easily, according to Space Force Chief Technology Officer Lisa Costa. Somewhere in the mix is also a space version of the metaverse (the SpaceVerse) that allows Guardians to more quickly and efficiently bring new technology to bear.

The SpaceVerse vision is admittedly little more blurry, but Costa can clearly see how the updated network should be game-changer as Space Force evolves into a fully “digitized” service:

“For example, US Space Command could use this data to update the space domain awareness picture and direct Unit Y to use the data provided by Unit X to perform additional on-orbit operations,” she told Breaking Defense in an interview. “This allows a Guardian… to do their job on operationally relevant timelines. Before data was integrated using ION, they had to literally hand carry data or manually input data between different systems and locations.”

ION, she said, will leverage commercial cloud-based technologies but be able to handle sensitive information at different classification levels.

“It’s really the foundation of everything we will do, meaning we could spend literally billions of dollars on [artificial intelligence] and modeling and [simulation] tools and training, but if it won’t run on the networks that we currently have, it will not have resulted in anything valuable,” Costa said May 4. “So first and foremost, we have to tackle the infrastructure. And what I mean by that is really agnostic transport, communication.”

Some of that infrastructure has not been updated for almost 25 to 30 years, Costa said, and ION will be the “foundational level of making sure that [the service] has the compute and transport power to be able to move data around the globe to Guardians.”

ION is currently a pilot program, but will “most likely” become a program of record, she added. An acquisition strategy for the effort is also still under discussion as the service focuses on “getting that foundation right. So I view that as within the next few years.”

“Because if you don’t invest in that, you will get a lot of… shadow tech that you don’t want that’s hard to divest of,” she said. “So we’ve got to get that right for the service. If we do nothing else that will be the most important part of that foundational piece.”

Speaking earlier this year at an AFCEA NOVA event, Costa said the service’s networks will need to be overhauled as it, in part, looks at whether in the future it will need ground stations that take data from satellites, or if some of that work can be done extra-terrestrially in the first place.

“We are looking at building out a space-based Internet of Things,” Costa said in March. “We need computation on orbit. We don’t want to have to download collected data down to a ground station, do processing on it, then upload it again, then do additional tasking, etc. We want to do that computation processing as close to the sensors as possible and do that retasking while that data is still in space.”

A fully modernized ION will allow two efforts currently being developed by the Space Force — the enhanced UDL and the service’s SpaceVerse concept — to plug into the network.

Building Out An Upgraded Unified Data Library

Space Systems Command (SSC) is working with industry to figure out how to “enhance” the UDL, the cloud-based data repository for space domain awareness designed to ingest data from multiple sources and turn it into a centralized common picture. 

“If we’re thinking about a house and you got a foundation of the house, so we’ve poured the concrete, now we have to have kind of the electricity flowing into every room,” Costa said. “That’s really enhanced UDL.”

As it currently stands, the UDL is difficult to manage and includes a huge backlog of data that’s waiting to be accessed. Costa told Breaking Defense that the original UDL actually did what it was designed to do, but “the only challenge is that the space environment has changed” as space has gotten exponentially busier. 

“And so we have to change UDL to match that environment,” she said. 

The “enhanced” version of the data repository will include more, and different types, of data than was originally thought when UDL was first developed. It’s now struggling with data emanating from the Space Force, intelligence community, commercial industry, academia as well as organizations in other countries.

When the service was thinking about what exactly an enhanced UDL would look like, Costa said 130 requirements were identified through seven key areas, starting with performance and functionality. 

“So in other words, when UDL was originally developed, it was data at rest,” she said. “I’m just going to transfer a file. Well, you can imagine that that is not how data gets transmitted today. It’s a lot of data in motion.

“And so we need to update or enhance UDL to be able to handle data in motion…things like being able to support model-based systems engineering,” she continued. “So that’s what I mean by functionality. And then we’ve written requirements for the interface. In other words, we need it to be browser accessible… And I need to be able to have the ability to rapidly discover data that might be in the UDL.”

The enhanced UDL will also need to be able to integrate different operational and analytical tools, or at the very least be able to rapidly transform into a format that can be used by those various tools, Costa said, adding that the service is “very interested” in commercial standards for the enhanced UDL.

Then there’s security. The upgraded data repository will need to be compliant and compatible with all of the Defense Department Chief Information Office and US Cyber Command’s guidance with built in defensive cyber operations tools. It will also need to have global access and data resiliency as the service builds out a cloud-based infrastructure.

Costa also emphasized how the Space Force’s vision relies on some stability in commercial markets, or at least the Guardians ability to work through change.

“We buy models, we buy algorithms and a lot of the people who write these algorithms, the company is bought by five other defense companies or the person goes out, retires, etc. And five years down the road, you need to make a change,” she said.

“So we need to have access to source code and we also don’t want black boxes,” she said. “We cannot make an operational decision based on a black box technology that we don’t know what are the main factors that are driving the answer that we’re getting. So that’s all wrapped up in intellectual property as well. It’s really understanding what is being measured and how it’s being measured.”

Fiscal 2024 budget documents further outline what the service hopes to include in the enhanced UDL: connecting additional Space Force sensors, “establishing bi-directional data sharing with coalition and allied partners, and increasing cloud hosting services” and expanding infrastructure “to maintain digital superiority, support an increased number of customers and operations across multiple security environments.”

The service wants to do this with the $56 million it requested for the program in FY24, almost twice the amount it got the previous year. 

But while the Space Force has an ambitious vision for what an enhanced UDL would look like, the current version has its flaws. A report from the Government Accountability Office in April stated that the Space Force has issues integrating the UDL into its space situational awareness operations and tasked the service to develop a plan to fix that.

According to the report, “The Space Force has deployed an initial operational version of the UDL and plans to further develop it; however, staff who monitor objects in space are not using it in daily SSA operations because it is not integrated into their operational systems.”

Costa said SSC has been working on mitigating those issues through a few different efforts, like expanding its defensive cyber operations under the effort and “increasing the number of customers that can be supported simultaneously as well as at multiple security levels.”

“In addition, they’ve been working on this approach to franchise UDL so that you can proliferate the UDL at different classification levels and at different locations,” she said. “The difference between that approach and what we’ve developed for enhanced UDL requirements is that we’re doing more of a federated approach. So everyone would see the same thing at the same time…There might be some differences in what people are seeing, but those should be minimal and they should be caught up with, I would say, an operationally relevant time.”

SSC is also “working on an ally-partner piece for UDL access” for the enhanced version of the UDL, she added.

The Space Force’s Metaverse: A ‘Shared Vision’ For The Service

Over the next decade, the Space Force hopes to turn its space-based metaverse concept into an actual tool used by Guardians that will also plug into the ION. While just how that will work is somewhat unclear — right now it’s merely a concept as the service plans to build it out over the next 10 years — Costa provided a few different cases where the service can see its benefits. 

“What I’ll say about SpaceVerse is that, you know like when you have a great idea, but maybe it’s a little too early for its time, right? I won’t really say it was too early for its time, but SpaceVerse is not a joint term,” Costa said. “And so when you go to try to communicate what SpaceVerse [is], which is really just the space version of the metaverse… it doesn’t equate to a joint term.”

To that point, SpaceVerse isn’t going to be an official program of record for the service. It’s more like a “shared vision” of where the service is headed.

“So it means that we are focused on being mobile, using digital models instead of paper-based models and using the same model across acquisition and training as well as [tactics, techniques and procedures] development and operations,” she said, describing what others have called “digital threads.”

“Instead of paying 15 times for different contractors to build the same model, we’re looking for digital engineering model repositories,” she continued. “We’re looking at then rendering the data for that model, in a way that’s immersive.”

The service sees the concept being useful for when it comes to training Guardians and also allowing them to be “co-creators” of their operational environments, she added.

That includes things like letting Guardians not only code but put data into the enhanced UDL themselves and making sure they have a full set of software-defined mission tools.

“And so it helps the entire pipeline of what Space Force does to train, man and equip,” Costa said. “So I don’t view it as helping any single area. It’s more of a holistic vision for how we’re going to integrate.”

Even with the haziness currently surrounding the SpaceVerse, Costa said the service does see a vision for connecting all three efforts together. But that vision could change.

“We have a vision,” Costa said. “Tech is changing all the time. We will always adjust our vision, but at the end of the day, we’ve got some objectives and key results and a north star, which is… making our Guardians the premiere space operators on the globe.

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