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Space Force looking for ‘unity’ in acquisitions despite a medley of agencies



The Space Force and the National Reconnaissance Office lead a “program integration council” to coordinate efforts by multiple agencies

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Space Force has an acquisitions arm called the Space Systems Command. A separate Space Rapid Capabilities Office that procures classified systems reports to the chief of the Space Force. The Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency also oversee space procurement programs. And many satellite programs are also run jointly with the National Reconnaissance Office, a U.S. intelligence agency.

Despite a medley of organizations that manage space procurements, the Space Force and the intelligence community have stood up a coordinating group to make sure there is “unity of effort,” Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, commander of the Space Systems Command, said Sept. 21 during a panel discussion at the Air Force Association’s Air Space & Cyber conference .

The chief of the U.S. Space Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond has called on the service to move faster with the acquisition of new technologies to stay ahead of rivals like China.

 “Our processes are archaic and our processes are slowing us down,” said Guetlein.

The number of organizations “that all have a finger in the acquisition pot of space has actually grown in recent years, not gotten smaller,” he said. “And in order for us to get after the threat, to get the agility and the innovation that we need, we need unity of effort and that’s really what we’ve been trying to drive.”

Guetlein said a “program integration council” chaired by Raymond and by NRO Director Chris Scolese brings together representatives from all the space buying agencies and the organizations that need the equipment — U.S. Space Command and Space Operations Command. That coordination “helps us get after the threat,” he said. 

Another change in the organization of space acquisition is coming in the near future when the Department of the Air Force nominates -— and the Senate confirms — an assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, who will be the civilian acquisition executive for space programs. 

Secretary Frank Kendall has said candidates are being vetted and a nomination could be announced soon.

Brig. Gen. Steve Whitney is the military deputy at this new office. He said Congress directed the Air Force to stand up the space acquisition executive office by October 2022. Kendall announced last month that he has moved to create the space acquisition executive office, called SAF SQ, by merging a couple of existing acquisition units on the headquarter staff.

“This is a demonstrating commitment that we not only want to do this, but we’re trying to get at it faster and that we’ll be ready when there is a nominee to be that service acquisition executive,” Whitney said.

“The secretary gave us some very specific direction on what we are to do,” said Whitney. “He wants us to focus on the acquisition of systems and technical capabilities while divesting some of the traditional roles [that the space acquisitions office used to have] in international affairs and space policy,” he added. 

“We’re taking some basic system engineering principles to try and figure out what functions we should have: everything from science and technology to the architecture, to capability delivery to the overall integration. And so we’re going to kind of form an office it’s got three directorates that are centered around those pieces.”

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Drones are accelerating OneWeb’s antenna tests



TAMPA, Fla. — OneWeb is using drones from Danish startup QuadSat to accelerate ground segment tests as it aims to bring part of its low Earth orbit broadband constellation online this year.

QuadSat’s quadcopters helped calibrate OneWeb’s gateway in Scanzano, Italy, and will now test its antennas elsewhere as the operator races to launch initial commercial services in the upper part of the Northern Hemisphere, ahead of full services in 2022.

The drones simulate the satellites that gateways track as they race across the sky, helping calibrate and verify ground segment networks outside laboratory conditions to prepare them for services.

Calibrating gateways with drones is “much faster” than the traditional method of using a visible geostationary (GEO) satellite, according to Michele Franci, OneWeb’s chief of delivery and operations.

Franci said the farther north or south a gateway is the trickier it can also be to find a suitable GEO satellite to lock onto, because of how low they appear on the horizon beyond 50 degrees from the equator.

Outside of the lab, characterizing gateways can also be done by setting up beacons on top of poles, but he said disturbances created with this method can be difficult to manage. 

With more than 40 gateways being constructed worldwide, each with 15 to 30 antennas that need to be calibrated and tested, Franci said the biggest advantage to using drones is speed.

“In our case, I would say it has reduced the time to do antenna [tests] by half if not more,” he said.

Without drones, he said it could take two or three weeks to perform these antenna characterizations.

“It’s very material to shortening the schedule,” Franci said, adding that “reducing these relatively small but crucial steps, and streamlining them, makes the deployment go much faster. There’s a sort of a virtuous effect in this.”

Sunil Bharti Mittal, OneWeb’s executive chair, said Sept. 8 that the operator aims to launch services in 30-60 days as it ramps up distributor agreements worldwide to sell its capacity.

According to Franci, six of OneWeb’s planned 42-45 gateways are currently operational.

“We have two that are almost done and another 16 under construction, and then the balance coming soon.”

Before launching commercial services above the 50th parallel north, he said OneWeb needs just one more operational gateway, in Greenland, that is in an “advanced stage of construction.”

Using drones also gives satellite operators more data about how their antennas perform, QuadSat CEO Joakim Espeland said in a separate interview.

“What we do with a drone is we fly up and we do something called a raster scan, which is also called a lawnmower pattern because it’s the same way you would mow your lawn,” Espeland said.

“We go back and forth in front of the antenna so we’re actually able to tell you, overall, exactly how the antenna works. And this is particularly important for LEO constellations, because as you’re tracking the satellites, you need to know that your antenna is able to perform across the entire dish, not just in the two [horizontal and vertical] planes.”

Arianespace launched another 34 satellites for OneWeb Sept. 14, expanding its network to 322 satellites of a planned 648-strong initial constellation.

On Sept. 21, OneWeb announced a new government-focused division called OneWeb Technologies, after completing its acquisition of Texas-based managed satcoms provider TrustComm.

The new wholly owned subsidiary is led by former TrustComm CEO Bob Roe.

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Op-ed | GPS Offers Lessons for the Infrastructure of Tomorrow



With the Senate’s passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last month, lawmakers are on the cusp of bringing long awaited funding to modernize our nation’s infrastructure. These investments, which include funding for roads and bridges, as well as broadband, electric vehicles, and transit, are sorely needed and will provide a strong base to grow the U.S. economy and modernize our nation’s infrastructure.

Many have remarked that this infrastructure package looks very different than those proposed in past decades. This is for good reason. Today’s transportation, agriculture, and construction for example are all connected by a common underlying feature: reliance on advanced technology which enhances efficiency and sustainability. The next iteration of smart infrastructure will also be technology based – including geospatial data, analytics and data, IoT tech, and AI – and it’s imperative that government leads on investments in these critical technologies. 

The Global Positioning System (GPS) represents the epitome of smart government investment. Originally developed to support U.S. military operations, GPS has evolved into one of the most widely used technologies of our time, touching nearly every aspect of society’s infrastructure from aviation and rail, to wireless broadband and the electric grid. In fact, GPS technology will play a prominent role in the deployment of infrastructure outlined in the legislative package, including mapping locations for electric vehicle (EV) chargers, enabling safer, more efficient operation of construction vehicles, and providing the precise timing needed to bring wireless broadband to unserved and underserved communities, just to name a few. 

Though the GPS system is sustained using public dollars (approximately $1.7 billion annually), it offers a platform that has unlocked the creativity of the private sector, resulting in an estimated $1 billion per day in economic benefits for the U.S. economy. Today, some of the more innovative uses of GPS are those that work together with other emerging technologies, thereby enabling smarter, more efficient functionality.

Take precision agriculture, for example, which for the past two decades has used GPS data to allow farmers to map their fields and more precisely guide their equipment, thereby leading to more efficient food production and greater environmental sustainability. Now, paired with improvements in wireless broadband, AI, and cloud computing, precision agriculture is entering the next phase of innovation. GPS-guided tractors and combines with centimeter-level accuracy have become more sophisticated by analyzing data gathered in the field and creating soil/yield mapping systems that save farmers time and money. Variable rate technology (VRT) systems can use data from sensors or GPS to vary the application of seeds, fertilizer and pesticides based on historical data, reducing waste of critical inputs. Irrigation also improves with systems that map fields and curve rows so that rainwater can be directed for natural irrigation, decreasing water usage by four percent, with the potential to decrease water usage an additional 21 percent through greater adoption.

The construction of roads, bridges, and buildings is another area of infrastructure that has benefited greatly from accurate, reliable, and resilient GPS. The painstaking and time-consuming process of gathering measurements for planning, design, and construction that has been used for generations is increasingly being replaced with digital construction technologies, including GPS, that increase machine productivity, reduce rework, and can lower project delivery costs by as much as 30 percent. Recognizing these benefits, the Senate-passed infrastructure package provides $20 million to accelerate the implementation and deployment of advanced digital construction management systems. GPSIA applauds congressional leaders for adopting this provision, which demonstrates what is possible when we “scale up” the use of existing technology and focus on enabling the infrastructure of tomorrow.

As Congress considers additional investment opportunities, including the reconciliation process and upcoming appropriations bills, GPSIA encourages more of these forward-thinking investments — investments in the technologies of tomorrow — that will be imperative to creating a more efficient and sustainable society for years to come. 

David Grossman is executive director of the GPS Innovation Alliance.

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Landsat 9 lifted atop launcher to extend unbroken environmental data record



The Landsat 9 Earth observation satellite inside the payload fairing of an Atlas 5 rocket at Vandenberg Space Force Base. Credit: NASA

The next Landsat observatory has been mounted on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket in California for liftoff Sept. 27, continuing an unbroken record of Earth observations to track urban sprawl, water usage, tropical deforestation, retreating glaciers, and more over the last half-century.

Landsat 9 is the next in a series of land imaging missions launched since 1972, tracking nearly 50 years of city growth, climate change, and trends in use of lands for agriculture and infrastructure.

“We are days away from launching our ninth Landsat mission,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth science division. “The Landsat program spans nearly 50 years and is a cornerstone of our understanding of Earth’s surface.

“Each satellite in the Landsat program has captured increasingly sophisticated data and imagery documenting Earth’s changing landscapes, and increasing our understanding of the planet on regional, national and global scales,” St. Germain said in a recent press conference on the Landsat 9 mission.

“Landsat data informs a wide range of decisions related to managing crop health and water resources,” she said. “These are critical decisions to mitigate global issues like regional famine or food scarcity in an era of accelerating climate change.

“This data is essential to global aid agencies, first responders here in the United States, policymakers are every level, major agricultural producers, and individual people, from farmers and ranchers to urban planners,” St. Germain said.

The Landsat program is a joint effort between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, with NASA responsible for spacecraft development and launch services. The USGS is in charge of ground systems and the Landsat data archive, and will operate the Landsat 9 mission after launch.

The Landsat 9 satellite is the next in a series of land imaging missions launched since 1972, collecting views from space of urban sprawl, tropical deforestation, retreating glaciers, and changes in coral reefs, crops, and tectonic faults.

In recent weeks, technicians at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California have loaded propellant into the Landsat 9 spacecraft and closed the satellite inside the nose cone of its Atlas 5 rocket.

On Sept. 15, teams hoisted the 5,981-pound (2,713-kilogram) Landsat 9 spacecraft on top of the Atlas 5 rocket on Space Launch Complex 3-East at Vandenberg.

The transfer of Landsat 9 satellite to the launch pad was delayed several days by the liftoff last week of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from a nearby facility at Vandenberg. That forced NASA and ULA officials to delay the launch of Landsat 9 from Sept. 23 to Sept. 27.

Last month, officials delayed the Landsat 9 launch from an earlier target date of Sept. 16 after problems with the delivery of liquid nitrogen to Vandenberg. Trucks typically used for the nitrogen shipments were repurposed for liquid oxygen transportation to hospitals due to higher demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Gaseous nitrogen, converted from cryogenic liquid form, is used by ULA in pre-launch testing.

Last year, NASA said the Landsat 9 launch was delayed from April 2021 to September 2021 after inefficiencies caused by the pandemic slowed assembly and testing of the spacecraft.

But Landsat 9’s launch is less than a week away now. Liftoff from the SLC-3E launch pad at Vandenberg is scheduled for 11:11 a.m. EDT (2:11 p.m. EDT; 1811 GMT) on Monday, Sept. 27.

An Atlas 5 rocket, flying in its basic configuration with no solid-fueled boosters, will fly south from Vandenberg over the Pacific Ocean. The Atlas 5’s first stage will shut down its Russian-made RD-180 engine about four minutes into the mission. An Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine on the rocket’s Centaur upper stage will fire for 12 minutes to inject the Landsat 9 satellite into orbit.

After deployment of Landsat 9, the Centaur stage will reignite its engine two times to maneuver into a different orbit for separation of four small CubeSat rideshare payloads.

The Landsat 9 satellite is raised into the mobile gantry at the Atlas 5 rocket’s launch pad in California. Credit: NASA

The newest Landsat satellite, built by Northrop Grumman, will fly around Earth in a polar orbit 438 miles (705 kilometers) above the planet, surveying the globe every 16 days in image swaths 115 miles (185 kilometers) wide.

Each pixel in the images captured by Landsat 9’s Operational Land Imager 2, or OLI 2, instrument will be about 100 feet (30 meters) across, about the size of a baseball diamond. Landsat 9’s other instrument — the Thermal Infrared Sensor 2, or TIRS 2 — can resolve features about 330 feet (100 meters) in size, roughly the length of a football field.

The $885 million Landsat 9 mission is based on the Landsat 8 satellite, which launched in 2013. The Obama administration directed NASA and the USGS to develop Landsat 9 in 2015, using new copies fo the OLI and TIRS instruments on Landsat 8.

The Landsat 8 satellite, designed for a five-year lifetime, remains operational. Landsat 8 and 9, working in tandem, will cover all of Earth’s land masses every eight days, according to Jeff Masek, NASA’s project scientist for the Landsat 9 mission.

“This frequency is really critical for assessing change, both for within a single year and between years,” Masek said.

Landsat 9 will also work in concert with other land imaging satellites, such as the European Sentinel 2 missions, to extend the continuous global coverage of land masses since the launch of Landsat 1 in 1972.

“When we further add in the data from the similar Sentinel 2A and 2B (satellites), we can get that refresh down to two to three days,” St. Germain said.

The Landsat data archive catalogs changes in land cover, water quality, glacier flow, and other properties of Earth’s surface, according to NASA. The thermal infrared data from Landsat satellites provide information on irrigation and water usage.

Scientists and forest managers use Landsat data to measure the impact of wildfires.

“I like to think of Landsat as something like a Swiss Army knife,” Masek said. “Out of one basic set of observations or measurements, we feed a whole range of different Earth science applications.

“It’s key role is to track both human-induced and natural changes to the land environment to better support land management decision-making,” Masek said. “And along the way, we’re able to assemble and visualize an amazing history of how the planet has changed over the last half-century.”

Landsat satellites have detected changes in the health and coverage of forests, and observed the impacts of climate change of ecosystems around the world. Masek said the Landsat satellites have noticed increased plant cover and melting of ice caps at higher latitudes due to warming temperatures.

“We can look at the types of crops being grown, we can measure their health, we can look at agricultural productivity,” Masek said. “We can also use the surface temperature measurements from TIRS, and energy budget models, to measure crop water consumption, which is an important application in the western U.S.”

While Landsat satellites are focused on land imaging, observations can also track changes in lake sizes, water quality, and help with the early detection of algal blooms, according to Masek.

“New applications are emerging all the time, so with the launch of Landsat 9, the user community, the science community, is absolutely looking forward to this launch, and for Landsat 9 to join the Landsat constellation,” Masek said.

Artist’s illustration of the Landsat 9 satellite in orbit. Credit: NASA/GSFC

NASA says the Landsat archive includes more than 8 million images captured since 1972.

David Applegate, acting director of the USGS, said the Landsat 8 and 9 satellites will combine to downlink nearly 1,500 images per day for distribution to hundreds of thousands of users around the world.

“Much like GPS and weather data, Landsat data are used every day to help us better understand our dynamic planet,” Applegate said.

Like Landsat 8, the new Landsat 9 spacecraft is has a design life of five years, but carries enough fuel to operate for at least a decade.

“If you put the two satellites side by side, they would look very similar,” said Del Jenstrom, Landsat 9 project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Like Landsat 8, we have two instruments. We have the Thermal Infrared Sensor 2, which we call TIRS 2, which is a two-band thermal imager, and we have the Operational Land Imager 2, OLI 2, which is a nine-band reflective imager with spectral coverage from visible to shortwave infrared.”

Jenstrom said the new satellites biggest improvement over Landsat 8 was to make changes to the TIRS 2 instrument, built in-house at Goddard. Engineers added more backup components to make the TIRS 2 instrument more reliable, and improved optics inside the sensor to correct an issue with stray light reaching the focal plane.

Teams on the ground compensated for Landsat 8’s stray light issue with changes to the way they process the imagery, but the underlying problem has been fixed for Landsat 9.

The OLI 2 instrument, supplied by Ball Aerospace, has two additional imaging bands to detect cirrus clouds and improve images of coastal waters. Jenstrom said the Landsat 9 satellite will downlink 14-bit data from OLI 2, compared with 12-bit data from OLI on Landsat 8, improving sensitivity by about 25%.

Landsat 9 also flies with a new generation of avionics and software. The satellite is also better shielded against orbital debris impacts and static charge build-up, according to Jenstrom.

The Landsat 8 satellite took this image of Cape Cod in Massachusetts in 2015. Credit: USGS

Emerging commercial space capabilities, such as privately-funded Earth-imaging spacecraft, aren’t a replacement for the government-owned Landsat satellites, St. Germain said.

New commercial startups provide “additional science” and “additional observations” for Earth scientists, she said.

“They don’t today replicate or replace the kind of data we collect with Landsat, but they generally have complementary strengths and can augment our base of understanding,” St. Germain said.

“As an example, commercial systems, generally they can observe more often, but they generally don’t observe in all the wavelengths we need to do the work we do with Landsat,” she said. “And also those commercial systems often rely on systems like Landsat as an anchor for their calibration and stability.”

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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