Enabling technologies falling into place for a revolution in space-based sensors and fast 5G networking

April 29, 2021
An orbiting surveillance network could track hypersonic munitions and aircraft, and detect and pinpoint relocatable military targets in real time.

THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY – Imagine a world surrounded by orbiting satellites equipped with fast communications payloads, multispectral surveillance sensors, and laser crosslinks able to network information overhead and to any points on Earth at the speed of light.

A 5G-like surveillance network like this could track hypersonic munitions and aircraft, detect and target relocatable military targets, warn of imminent improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, and, eventually perhaps, even track enemy submarines -- all in real time.

While notions like this might sound futuristic, this vision of the future may not be as far away as people might think. It will take diverse enabling technologies in space networking, laser communications, and high-performance digital signal processing on orbiting satellites, but the pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together.

Earlier this year the U.S. Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif., sent out feelers to industry in a request for information for the 5G for Space Data Transport (SDT) project, which seeks to adapt 5G networking, RF and microwave access, mobility support, and related big-data functions to U.S. space systems.

Related: U.S. Space Force reaches out to industry for companies able to adapt 5G wireless networking to space uses

Space Force experts are looking for ways to capitalize on rapidly emerging 5G technologies to move data quickly and securely among military forces and command authorities through space networks.

Of particular interest are technologies involving 5G multiple-input and multiple output (MIMO); space millimeter waves; radio-access network slices; network slice orchestration; artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and deep learning; trusted autonomous networks; cyber security; 5G internet of space things (IoST); multi-tenant edge computing (MEC); 5G space-to-ground networks; and space network topologies.

Then last January the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., announced a $155 million contract to the Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems segment in Redondo Beach, Calif., for the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) Phase IIA effort to develop a prototype satellite sensor to detect and track inbound enemy ballistic and hypersonic missiles.

Related: What 5G means to the military

HBTSS seeks to develop satellites for low-Earth orbit to provide global sensor coverage to detect, track, and target ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The system is to detect, track, and discriminate among missile targets, and ultimately fold into the planned sensor infrastructure of the Space Development Agency’s (SDA) missile tracking layer, which will consist of hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit that communicate with each other and work together to detect and track enemy weapons.

HBTSS satellites will have wide-field-of-view sensors networked together with optical inter-satellite cross-links to detect and track targets on land, at sea, in the air, and in space. The HBTSS will be one of dozens of satellites with medium-field-of-view sensors that will provide fire-control data to missile defense systems to intercept incoming hypersonic and ballistic missiles.

Combining wide- and medium-field-of-view sensors is necessary to track hypersonic missiles like the Russian Avangard and Chinese Starry Sky-2 hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), which maneuver and travel around and through coverage areas of terrestrial radars and sensors.

Related: SEAKR pushing-on with military research project to create space networking avionics for small satellites

Today's missile-defense systems are not able to track and kill hypersonic weapons, which are designed to outmaneuver contemporary detection systems through speed and hyper-maneuverability. In October 2019 MDA chose Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Leidos, and L3Harris, each to design a prototype sensor payload. U.S. military commanders expect to launch the first HBTSS satellites in 2023.

Meanwhile, the Blackjack program of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., is continuing technology demonstrations and prototyping in an effort to orbit a constellation of small, secure, and affordable military satellites that capitalize on modern commercial satellite technologies by developing low-cost space payloads and commoditized satellite buses with low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) with similar capabilities to today’s military communications that operate at geosynchronous orbit (GEO), but at a fraction of the cost.

These aren't the only projects developing these kinds of crucial enabling technologies. It won't be long before the vision of a space-based reconnaissance and networking system to provide persistent surveillance of the Earth's oceans, land masses, and surrounding airspace becomes a reality.

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