The U.S. military for years has been quite comfortable developing and maintaining its own network of space surveillance sensors, at considerable cost. But the emergence of commercial suppliers of SSA data, short for space situational awareness, has led to a rethinking of how the Defense Department should invest its SSA dollars.
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center is no stranger to working with private sector providers of space data. But SMC, the organization in charge of acquiring space technologies, has struggled to figure out a contracting mechanism to buy SSA products from commercial vendors that are not dedicated defense contractors. It’s more complex than it sounds because the government often does not know exactly what it wants upfront, and that makes it harder for a supplier to understand the requirements and quote a price. Then there’s the larger question of deciding what makes sense to buy from the open market, as opposed to building military-unique telescopes and radar.
To sort through all this, SMC teamed up with the Air Force Research Laboratory a couple of years ago to start a program known as CAMO, for commercially augmented mission operations. AFRL signed up three vendors — ExoAnalytic Solutions, Numerica and LeoLabs — to load their space catalog data and tools into Air Force systems so analysts could mine the information and assess its utility and value. The goal was to figure out what the Air Force can do with this data and how to use it in real-world operations, Paul Zetocha, director of space battle management at AFRL, said in an interview.
“Traditionally, we use DoD assets, but commercial has been moving a lot faster than DoD,” he noted.
A parallel effort was the Unified Data Library, a joint SMC-AFRL project that started about a year and a half ago to create a repository where commercial data could be hosted. The UDL concept is evolving but has huge promise because it provides a means to make data available to a broader pool of military and civilian government users, said Zetocha.
The CAMO project confirmed that commercial data provides real value but the Air Force is still searching for a contracting avenue for military buyers to acquire data from vendors with minimum red tape. SMC’s answer is an electronic storefront known as “SSA Marketplace.” On Aug. 21, the Air Force awarded a Small Business Innovation Research contract to Bluestaq to develop the portal.
“Once developed, the SSA Marketplace will streamline the manner in which commercial space domain awareness data is purchased,” Maj. Daniel Kimmich, SSA data portfolio manager, said in a statement. If successful, the storefront would fix one important issue the Air Force worries about: being able to buy and pay only for the data they need. In the SSA Marketplace, Kimmich explained, customers submit their data requirements and vendors can bid in real time. “Data providers can connect to future customers across the SSA enterprise without an excessively long acquisition process,” he said.
In the large scheme of space programs, the SSA Marketplace and the Unified Data Library are tiny projects that few people have heard about. But they are signs of change in how the Air Force wants to work with the private sector as space becomes a more significant national security concern. At the military’s space command-and-control centers, officials want 24/7 visibility of what’s happening in every orbit, and that cannot be achieved with government sensors alone.
“Commercial can take 98% of the burden off,” an industry executive told SpaceNews. The Air Force could rely on SSA companies to monitor the entire sky all the time and to track events like conjunctions, re-entries and breakups. The government then could focus its sensors on specific areas of concerns or threats.
They need both commercial and their own infrastructure to do no-kidding military things,” the executive said. “That’s the struggle they’re going through. A shift from a military to a hybrid infrastructure is complicated.”
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Sept. 2, 2019 issue. Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.