Space Force Quietly Getting it Done (w SpaceX help)…While Shedding Space Missions?
The eighth branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, the United States Space Force, will celebrate its third birthday on 20 December, and thus far if you ask the common man in the streets what USSF has accomplished about as good an answer you will get is that it outlived the yawn-worthy Netflix parody comedy about it. Be that as it may, Space Force’s Space Launch Delta 45 (formerly the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing out of Patrick AFB) has been busy.
Operating from Cape Canaveral’s old and historic Eastern Range, in their first supported launch was a SpaceX Falcon 9 Starlink L-26 mission on May 15, 2021. That Starlink mission carried 52 satellites into orbit. Last week they saw the first National Security Space Launch mission on a Falcon Heavy rocket and the 95th consecutive successful NSSL mission.
The payloads onboard included two space vehicles, the Long Duration Propulsive EELV Secondary Payload Adaptor (LDPE ESPA-2) and the Shepard Demonstration Mission.
The LDPE ESPA-2 spacecraft will deliver six small payloads to orbit that will advance communications and space weather sensing. LDPE ESPA-2 is envisioned as a ‘freight train to space’ for experiments and prototypes in geosynchronous high Earth orbit and will boost satellites to their final destination.
Because it is more cost effective, more companies with smaller satellites can make use of this ‘train’, increasing the speed and frequency of delivering similar payloads to orbit.
Like the LDPE-2, the Shepard Demonstration is designed to test new technologies to enhance safe and responsible rendezvous and proximity operations, providing an affordable path to space for hosted and separable payloads.
The USSF-44 mission provides a range of capabilities such as enabling safe navigation, secure communications, detection and identification of a wide range of threats, and other critical functions.
This is the second of three missions for the LDPE program. The first mission launched aboard STP-3 in December 2021 and LDPE-3A is scheduled to launch with USSF-67 in December of 2022.
Meanwhile, a mission you would expect Space Force to be all over, tracking all those objects floating around space, is being transferred to the Department of Commerce.
Right now, U.S. Space Command tracks more than 47,000 objects in space. But there are plans to transfer that responsibility to the Department of Commerce, an effort that will allow Spacecom to focus more on what’s happening in space rather than just on the tracking of objects there, the Spacecom commander said.
“My current priority is to invest in space domain awareness. To … gain a better understanding of the activities in space,” Army Gen. James Dickinson said. “Our challenges center on ensuring the warfighter has relevant and timely data to execute missions in a very complex and changing environment.”
Dickinson outlined priorities for his command and how industry might contribute to supporting them during a Thursday conference hosted in Los Angeles by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.
“Operationally our allies and partners are increasing their investments in , offering enhanced capabilities that can augment U.S. Space Command’s globally-distributed sensor network,” Dickinson said. “We must find innovative ways to create an integrated sensor network on a global scale. Through an integrated network we can build knowledge of the environment. Through knowledge, we know we can gain better wisdom.”
Space superiority, Dickinson said, means warfighters are getting the right data, in a timely manner, to allow them to make the decisions they need to make.
“Our sensor network must better enable battle management of increasingly dynamic and changing environments,” he said.
What Spacecom is looking for, Dickinson told industry members, are new, state-of-the-art technologies not dependent on limited, onboard consumables.
“Next-generation spacecraft require renewables and resupply to extend their lifespan and assure they are available for many, many years,” he said. “This is where our partnership with industry converges. Given our pacing challenge and expansion of dynamic space operations, we need to leverage commercial capabilities that are available today or maybe tomorrow.”
The general said Spacecom is looking for “existing viable capabilities that are good enough,” and pointed to systems such as the Army’s Gunsmoke-J satellite program as an example.
“We are filling space domain awareness capacity gaps with missile warning and defense sensors such as the Army/Navy’s TYPY2, and the Navy’s Aegis BMD ships,” he said. “I encourage aerospace companies to become partners with U.S. Space Command in our mission … by joining the Commercial Integration Cell and/or the Commercial Operations Cell.”
Spacecom’s commercial integration strategy, Dickinson said, is meant to set priorities and synchronize industry integration to mitigate capability gaps, but that it’s not an acquisition strategy.
“Commercial mission partners can formalize their provision of space capabilities through cooperative research and development agreements with our functional and service component commands,” he said. “We pursue the objectives of commercial integration because we know that industry contributes greatly to our ability to protect and defend the United States, our allies and our partners. Our mission success is dependent on the partnerships and relationships that we build with all of you.”
Dickinson said Spacecom needs a comprehensive and diverse space domain awareness network capable which is capable of supporting dynamic space operations, and that industry will be key in making that happen.
“As America has always done, we must harness the best and the brightest to address our most significant operational challenges,” he said. “Military cooperation with the commercial sector is essential to our national defense. Industry is a solution provider and force multiplier, which expands the military’s warfighting capabilities. U.S. Spacecom will not go it alone in our commitment to ensure, along with all of you, that there is never a day without space.”