AFRL is looking to bolster its technical workforce and partner with private companies, said Col. Jeremy Raley, head of the spacecraft directorate.
WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate expects to launch major military experiments over the next three years, including a GPS-like navigation satellite, a solar-powered spacecraft and a deep-space mission to monitor regions around the moon
With these and other space projects in the pipeline, AFRL looks to bolster its technical workforce and partner with private companiesColonel Jeremy Raley, the new chief of the spacecraft directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, said SpaceNews.
Raley, who took over the leadership last monthHe said there is a growing list of projects available “and I need people who want to come here to New Mexico or partner with AFRL and work on these things.”
The directorate, with more than 800 employees and an annual budget of more than $500 million, conducts some of the most cutting-edge military space experiments.
“There are a lot of opportunities for young engineers to really make an impact,” Raley said.
AFRL’s experiments are trying to answer questions such as how the military could deploy satellites between Earth and the Moon, use space to deploy new types of communications architectures, and extend the life of satellites in orbit. “Those are going to be huge, exciting things to work on,” Raley said. “I need junior to mid-level engineers who want to come here and make that happen.”
In addition to hire peoplethe spacecraft directorate is seeking help from outside space industry contractors, he said.
Prior to taking charge of the AFRL’s space vehicle division, Raley worked at the Space Force’s Office of Rapid Space Capabilities, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office.
While organizations like Space RCO need mature technologies that can be implemented relatively quickly, at AFRL “we have to make a lot of smart technical bets,” Raley said. Many of AFRL’s projects are in support of the Space Force.
An $84 million experiment scheduled to launch in mid-to-late 2023 is the Satellite-3 navigation technology (NTS-3), which will fly into geostationary Earth orbit to augment the positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services provided by GPS satellites.
NTS-3 will add a layer of resiliency to the PNT architecture, Raley said, but the “real win” his office hopes to achieve in this experiment is figuring out how to build and put user equipment on a fast timeline so it’s available as as soon as the satellite is operational.
One of the problems with the GPS program has been the lack of synchronization between the deployment of satellites and the production of receivers. “We want to make sure that people who need to integrate receivers into aircraft, munitions and other systems that require PNT can take advantage of what we’re doing with the space segment, and we can actually move both segments at once.” Raley said.
Looking ahead to 2025, AFRL plans to launch a $100 million experimental satellite to harvest solar energy in outer space for use on Earth. The manifestation, called arachneit is one of a series of solar energy experiments that the AFRL seeks to carry out.
If Arachne is successful, it could help develop technologies to deliver solar power to military forces in the field so they can be deployed without having to bring in massive fuel trucks.
Work is also underway on an experiment to monitor deep space beyond Earth’s orbit. Formerly known as the Cislunar Highway Patrol System (CHPS), the experiment was renamed Oracle. Raley said the lab decided to rename the project and select a name from Greek mythology, in line with NASA’s preference to name lunar missions after Greek gods.
“Like NASA, we are going to be operating in those same spaces. And we’re going to find smart ways to cooperate,” Raley said. Both NASA and the Department of Defense care about “domain awareness and understanding of what’s going on.”
AFRL is evaluating industry proposals for Oracle, Raley said. “There’s a lot we need to learn about how to operate, navigate and communicate from that section of space.”
A priority for the military is “to understand if other countries are operating and what capabilities they have,” he said.
However, he added, “it is still not 100% clear that there is much military utility to operating in cislunar space. And a lot of what we’re doing is starting to answer that question before the US government makes a major investment in militarizing that space.”
Raley said he hasn’t seen any of the proposals submitted for Oracle. “I anticipate we’ll see various teaming arrangements where people take mature technologies in sensors, propulsion, navigation and timing, and tie them together.”
The spacecraft directorate launched in July Recurvea cubesat experiment intended to demonstrate radio frequency links and mesh networks in space.
Recurve, which flew on a Virgin Orbit small satellite launch vehicle, is one example of low-cost experiments that AFRL wants to start accelerating to take advantage of new launch services that offer more flexible options.
Autonomous satellite operations
Raley’s vision is not necessarily to create new experiments, but to focus on key foundational technologies that could help the Space Force in all of its satellite programs.
One example is autonomous command and control of satellite constellations, a capability that many private satellite operators have perfected but the military is still experimenting with.
This is important for the future of the Space Force, Raley said. “Getting our command and control right and getting some of this autonomy built in is going to have a huge impact on the economics of the force.”
That’s another way of saying that the Space Force has a small workforce and needs to automate its operations as much as possible. “We’re not going to get a bunch of people to come and blow up all the satellites,” he said. “As we move towards more satellites, we’re going to have to be very efficient in how we control them, and we’re going to have to learn what the right type and level of autonomy is.”
With that goal in mind, AFRL is conducting experiments on the ground using quadcopters in a cage and giving them a target without telling them how to do it, Raley said. “We are taking what we learn from that and starting to move towards what we can do in orbit with cooperative autonomous operation between satellites.”
One of the goals is to have self-healing networks that autonomously reroute traffic when a satellite is blocked, for example. “If we’re in a contested environment where someone denies us the use of a satellite, we have to figure out how to get the remaining satellites back into mission planning.”