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The Pentagon is moving to build ties with commercial space firms as U.S. military forces seek faster and cheaper ways to communicate, and better tools to monitor security threats around the world. This activity is likely to pick up as investors continue to pour billions of dollars into satellite constellations and launch systems.

The market forces that are bringing inexpensive broadband, imagery and other services into the global economy already have shaken up the military space business as new competitors enter the fray and prices continue to come down. But big questions still remain on how the military intends to capitalize on the growing investment and innovation.

The U.S. government has been a minor player in the “new space” revolution propelled by private activity in small satellites and launch services. The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental known as DIUx — the Pentagon’s technology hub in Silicon Valley — is now working more directly with space startups and funding selected projects that have potential applicability in national security. 

Air National Guard Col. Steve Butow leads the space portfolio at DIUx. He spoke enthusiastically last week about ongoing ventures with the space industry, but said it is too early to predict what will come of them. Many companies prefer to work in “stealth” mode out of fear their trade secrets will leak to competitors. And companies that do business with DIUx can choose to keep the relationship secret, Butow said during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Among the few firms that have publicly discussed their work with DIUx is Capella Space, based in Silicon Valley. The company soon will begin to launch small satellites — dubbed CubeSats — equipped with synthetic aperture radar. The company announced it will deploy 12 satellites per year starting in 2019, and offer one-meter resolution SAR imagery of any place around the world, updated hourly.

Butow noted that there are now multiple players in the commercial SAR microsatellites business. “It’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “When we started there were zero companies doing commercial SAR.” DIUx is separately funding work in data analytics to figure out how to package and turn SAR data into useful military intelligence.

“They are looking at ‘patterns of life’ … early warnings, or early indicators of things we need to know about,” said Butow. “It’s the ultimate ‘big data’ problem. We have to look at everything not just at specific targets.” Synthetic aperture radar creates two- or three-dimensional images of objects. Iceye, a Finland-based company, claims to have developed the world’s first microsatellite SAR constellation.

CSIS defense and space industry analyst Todd Harrison said more than 1,500 small satellites will be orbiting the Earth by the end of this year, launched from 70 countries.

As it becomes cheaper to launch satellites, companies are coming up with new types of space services. Startup HawkEye 260 is working on a microsatellite constellation that will survey the global and map the location radio-frequency emitters. The system will monitor RF spectrum usage to help identify where signals come from and give businesses or government agencies geo-location data so they can avoid interference or jamming, said Alison Alfers HawkEye 360 chief legal officer.

Orbital Insight is one of the geospatial analytics startups that is working with DIUx. The company generates intelligence using satellite imagery and other data.

“We’re putting in a small amount of money, and they’re developing capabilities for the global market,” Butow said. Under the contracting arrangement, the government can choose to stay with the company if it likes what it sees, or it can bow out if it turns out it is not a good match. “We don’t want to create defense contractors,” he said.

Butow noted, however, that while startups may be hot tickets, the Pentagon is not about to abandon its traditional programs or stop spending on costly satellites and rockets that meet unique military demands.

Big geosynchronous spacecraft that take years to build are “absolutely essential” to the military and will not be displaced by small satellites, Butow said. “Our exquisite systems, there’s no replacing them.”

The rise of commercial space, nonetheless, has sparked much curiosity in the military, said Marco Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies at the Teal Group. “The reality is that defense is a conservative culture,” he said. “It doesn’t want to change too quickly.”

The Pentagon eventually will have to shift to commercial products and services because it cannot afford to pay for custom designs and manufacturing of billion-dollar spacecraft and launch vehicles, said Caceres. “The government is broke. The military is looking for options, and the commercial side is becoming very robust.”

For satellite communications, a wave of privately funded technology is about to sweep the industry. Commercial space giant SpaceX in 2015 opened a satellite business in which Google and Fidelity invested $1 billion to manufacture a 4,425-satellite constellation for broadband services.

“Once satellites are launched, I have to believe the military will want a piece of that,” said Caceres. There are risks associated with commercial ventures, so the Pentagon will have to hedge its bets.

Satellite communications provider SES Networks is wagering that the government will want systems that are cheaper than traditional military satellites but not quite as high risk as a microsatellite startup. It is offering a medium-Earth orbit solution with a constellation of 65 satellites that could grow to 80 over the next several years. SES Vice President Nicole Robinson said a mid-Earth constellation would give the government the flexibility to mix and match services, depending on the mission. To demonstrate the concept, the company built a customized SUV equipped with radios that run over multiple frequencies, accessing both geostationary-Earth orbit beams and fiber-like medium-Earth orbit communications links.

In the launch services sector, the competition is heating up as well. Steve Nixon, vice president of Stratolaunch, said his company expects to drive down the cost of launching satellites. Stratolaunch developed a huge 250-ton aircraft to carry rockets and launch them into space. “With one aircraft sortie, you could basically launch an entire architecture of satellites into multiple planes,” Nixon said.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the service gave commercial space a key vote of confidence when it certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for military launches. “There's a lot of innovation going on out there in the private sector. It's very interesting to us,” she said in congressional testimony.


Sandra Erwin is a national security and defense reporter for RealClearDefense. She can be reached at serwin@realcleardefense.com. Follow Sandra on Twitter @Sandra_I_Erwin.

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