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How the US Military Is Preparing for Hostile Threats to Its Satellites

The military is trying to manufacture and launch small satellites quickly and cheaply. The problem? Getting to and operating in space is anything but quick and cheap.
Imagen vía ORS

The US military is very dependent on its perch in outer space. Specifically, it is dependent on satellites, which enable communications in hard-to-reach places, provide guidance signals for precision weapons, and generate valuable intelligence needed to keep tabs on adversaries.

This has not escaped the notice of people who have a bone to pick with the US, and who are therefore keen on neutralizing America's space-based military capabilities. At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, General John Hyten, the commander of Air Force Space Command, reiterated a point frequently made by senior leadership in the national security space field: Space is no longer a sanctuary. Adversaries are developing capabilities to directly combat the asymmetric advantage that space gives US war fighters. Space, Hyten said, is becoming "increasingly congested, contested, and competitive."


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Current US satellites are large, expensive, complex machines that can cost more than a stealth bomber — and in some cases, about as much as an aircraft carrier. The reasons why the government keeps ordering these giant, costly satellites encompass a complex mix of government procurement practices, physics, and politics. But regardless of the reason, there's now a deliberate push to break the mold and get away from those behaviors.

Since the current breed of military satellite takes so long to build, it would also take a long time to replace a satellite that gets taken out by a hostile action (or by the tons of orbital debris — a.k.a. space junk — zipping around Earth at thousands of miles per hour). So the military's Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office is looking at ways to change that slow response time. "Responsive" is the key descriptor in the acronym, signaling their desire to be able to launch a new, cheap, simple spacecraft to quickly respond to a military commander's needs, bypassing the normal decades-long multi-billion dollar hassle.

One of the major disconnects in the Department of Defense (DOD) is the gulf between the equipment troops actually need and the way in which new equipment is obtained through the DOD's byzantine acquisition process. ORS is hoping that, through their responsive approach to space, they can improve the link between the military's Unified Combatant Commanders who are actually in charge of fighting, and the space acquisition infrastructure.


The office was established in 2007, and since then it has launched two of its own satellites and taken over ongoing fast-launch projects such as the TacSat (Tactical Satellite) program. TacSat-3 originally launched in 2009 and was designed as an imagery platform able to take extremely fancy pictures of the earth below in all sorts of conditions. But the real innovation on TacSat 3 wasn't the camera; it was the standardized chassis known as the satellite bus, which made up the core of the satellite and provided basic functions. The standardized bus will make it easier to add different plug-and-play hardware components as needed, reflecting the growing popularity of modular design in space.

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Making a cheap, easily assembled satellite is just half the battle, however. The other half is getting the satellite into orbit. So far, the ORS office has favored the Minotaur launch vehicle, a converted Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile whose flight profile is altered to gently put a satellite into low earth orbit.

Although the Minotaur has proven successful, ORS is still keen to explore options. The next ORS launch, set to take place this fall, will be an important qualifying test for a new rocket called the Super Strypi. The fact that the DOD is accepting the huge risk of trying out a new vehicle when they don't absolutely need to shows its willingness to experiment when it comes to space.


Early space industry responses to the ORS tests suggest that the future of small satellites won't be limited to small, government-owned and -operated launchers like the ones being tested by ORS. For starters, Hyten said small satellites will be hitching rides with larger satellites going up on large launch vehicles already in service. But that still requires lots of longterm planning and preparation, so to address that problem, private-sector launch providers have been making moves on small satellite launch.

For example, Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne is a platform that shares some common heritage with Virgin's SpaceShipTwo suborbital passenger vehicle (they both use the same carrier plane to get to high altitude for launch). The company is claiming that LauncherOne "will launch the small satellite revolution." Meanwhile, startups like Rocket Lab are using novel technologies like 3D-printed rocket engines and carbon fiber rocket bodies.

Whether it's private companies or ORS implementing ways to make satellite architecture more resilient and adaptable — funding for ORS has been in question for the past several years, though the president's 2016 budget allots it $6.5 million — there's little doubt the DOD will be increasingly hungry for better satellite services to maintain its advantage in space.

Follow Steven Tomaszewski on Twitter: @stevetomski

Photo via ORS