Space Force head of intelligence Maj. Gen. Gregory Gagnon (right); Robert Cardillo, Planet Federal board chair (left). (Photo: Theresa Hitchens)

WASHINGTON — Following its success at tapping hundreds of ground-based commercial sensors to keep eyes on the heavens, the Space Force now wants to replicate that model for space-to-space imagery, according to the service’s head of intelligence.

“The next pivot for looking up is to look in outer space from outer space. There’s no reason you only need to observe satellite maneuvers from the ground. You can do it from space,” Maj. Gen. Gregory Gagnon, Space Force deputy chief of space operations for intelligence, said today.

For example, he noted that the service has been working with the Pentagon’s far-future research unit, DARPA, on its Space-domain Wide Area Tracking and Characterization, or Space-WATCH, effort designed to incentivize commercial operators of large constellations for other missions to also equip their satellites for neighborhood watch duties.

Gagnon’s signaling of increased interest in commercial on-orbit sensing was music to the ears of the audience at an event sponsored by remote sensing start-up Planet.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Robert Cardillo, a former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and board chairman for Planet Federal, the company’s US arm, told Breaking Defense.

Until now, the Space Force’s efforts to enhance its space domain awareness via the integration of commercial capabilities have primarily been focused on getting data and analysis from terrestrial telescope and radar networks.

Service work on space-based capabilities for monitoring adversary satellites has centered on government owned and operated constellations, such as the service’s Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) constellation, and its successor program called SILENTBARKER with the National Reconnaissance Office.

By contrast, Space Force interest in commercially owned neighborhood watch satellites largely has been limited to experiments — in part because commercial capabilities are somewhat embryonic, as license restrictions on sales of what is often called “non-Earth imaging” were lifted only last year. 

That said, the Space Force in March released a request for information (RFI) seeking industry ideas to inform its early work to develop concepts for “for a constellation of free-flyer space vehicles with electro-optical payloads to detect, track, and characterize resident space objects in geosynchronous orbit.” The RFI explained that at the moment the service wants ideas to “support near and midterm studies and acquisition decisions” about satellites that can not just sit still and take pictures of adversary satellites but also perform “rendezvous and proximity operations” to stay up close to their targets.

Meanwhile, Gagnon stressed that the Space Force is “making great progress” in its current efforts to integrate commercial capabilities and thereby enhance its space monitoring chops.

Using only commercial ground-based sensors to provide data, the Space Force is now gathering “360 observations a minute” of objects in space, he said. “That scales up to about 17 million a month. … [E]very four minutes, just from the commercial data, we’re identifying a maneuver and space and sending an alert.”

Gagnon explained that rather than buying new space monitoring hardware to augment US Space Command’s Space Surveillance Network of government-owned sensors, the Space Force is acquiring commercial data from “over 24 companies” via “service” agreements.

“Those observations and that data is ingested into our Unified Data Library,” he explained, which can then be exploited “to help us understand outer space.”

Gagnon praised SSC’s work on the UDL, initiated in 2018 and now being updated, and urged the Planet audience of largely commercial remote sensing industry representatives not to bother duplicating it.

“I don’t want you to put your IRAD [independent research and development] on building me an information system data structure that helps handle all this because I’ve picked a winner,” he said.  “And it’s important that we stick with that winner because it’s doing really well.”

Gagnon asked companies to instead work on creating capabilities to help improve the UDL’s performance, such as artificial intelligence/machine learning tools to process data and automatically sift through observational data to pinpoint and track satellite maneuvers “in operationally relevant timeframes.”