DARPA looks to improve tracking of objects in space

The seemingly infinite amount of space junk hurtling high above the Earth’s atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour, combined with the possibility of nation states exploiting vulnerabilities, puts vital satellites constantly at risk. The commander of Strategic Command, Adm. Cecil Haney, has asserted that the threat in space is real. Damage to these space assets would not only affect the communications and operations of military units, but also commercial GPS applications on smartphones and other services civilians rely upon daily.

After years of relative safety, the military is taking the space threat seriously, engaging in a series of space situational awareness agreements—sharing information on their orbiting assets—with partner nations. The Air Force also recently released a Space Enterprise Vision, which is the culmination of an Air Force Space Command-commissioned study examining ways to make national space security more resilient. 

Now, the military’s primary research arm wants in on the action. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is touting a series of programs aimed at engendering greater space situational awareness (SSA). The first is OrbitOutlook, which works to improve the space surveillance network through integrating data from several sources to paint a clearer and more realistic picture. The program involves three elements that include making use of new telescopes and radar from a variety of locations, creating a central database for this new network of telescopes and radar, and using a validation process to  ensure the accuracy of data. 

“By including new telescopes and radar facilities based in diverse locales, and by revolutionizing how we process different data types, we anticipate vast improvements in our tracking of potentially hazardous objects and our ability to efficiently avoid collisions in space,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy Raley, DARPA program manager. “If we’re successful, OrbitOutlook could revolutionize how the U.S. military and the global space-debris-monitoring community collect and use space situational awareness data, through a framework based on partnerships and fee-for-service arrangements that would enable all parties to share and purchase data from hundreds of sensors. Not only could we double or triple the amount of useful data, but we could also generate indications and warnings in hours instead of weeks and provide orders-of-magnitude improvements in accuracy and affordability.” 

DARPA envisions a scalable automated algorithm within the integrated feed that can extract relevant data allowing experts to make decisions in real time to protect space assets from harm.  DARPA expects to test these enhanced SSA algorithms soon. 

Following successful testing and demonstration of algorithms – set for fall of 2016 – the data could be shared with the broader debris-tracking community and eventually transition the OrbitOutlook network to stakeholders in the SSA community, including the Air Force, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, private industry and others, DARPA said.

OrbitOutlook’s products and technologies could also be rolled into DARPA’s Hallmark program, which aims to provide breakthrough capabilities in space command and control. Given that there is not a satisfactory capability to evaluate new technologies for impacts on space command and control capabilities, Hallmark will seek to develop more efficient tools for space situational awareness. 

The first phase of two planned phases for the program, called Hallmark Software Testbed, or ST, will seek to create advanced enterprise software architecture for a testbed of tools to integrate a full spectrum of real-time space-domain systems and capabilities. Hallmark’s testbed will mirror several other initiatives within the department that aim to rapidly test technologies to get them into operators’ hands at the speed of technology proliferation today. 

The testbed will be used to expedite the creation and assessment of a comprehensive set of tools to potentially be rolled into near-term operational use by the Joint Space Operations Center – which detects, tracks, and identifies all artificial objects in Earth orbit – and the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center, a data hub that fuses space information among DOD, the intelligence community, other agencies and commercial entities. 

“We envision a system that would fuse information from diverse sources and vastly reduce the overall time required to make and execute decisions and observe results,” said Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO), which oversees Hallmark. “For example, an intuitive user interface incorporating 3D visualization technology would present complex information in novel ways and provide commanders with unprecedented awareness and comprehension. An advanced testbed featuring playback and simulation capabilities would significantly facilitate research and development activities, experiments, and exercises to evaluate new technologies for their impact on space command and control capabilities.”

This software enterprise will serve as the backbone of a longer-term testbed for the Hallmark Space Evaluation and Analysis Capability. SEAC is expected to be located in northern Virginia and would provide for the effective development, integration, modeling and simulation, and realistic testing of software associated with space command and control. As an integral part of the integration of external space command and control tools, DARPA envisions that SEAC will contribute to the rapid technological integration of these enterprise systems.   

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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