Spacecom leader lays out wish list for DARPA-led innovation

Written by Brandi Vincent

Space domain awareness, autonomous systems, and maneuver and logistics capabilities are at the top of the US Space Command’s wish list for new innovative tech from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to its Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. John Shaw.

Speaking about the need for better domain awareness, Shaw referred to a “tyranny of volume,” noting that the command is focused on the entire area of ​​space encompassed by Earth’s gravity well including the Moon.

“That’s a lot of volume, and that’s a lot of opportunity for us to miss things that are happening within that volume that we need to be aware of,” he said Wednesday at the DARPA Forward conference at the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins , Colorado.

Those “things” could be natural hazards, deliberate threats, or incidental hazards connected to debris or other objects in orbit.

He also highlighted the need to monitor signals and the potential for unintentional or deliberate electromagnetic interference.

Spacecom wants to use predictive analytics to understand what may happen next, or to detect possible changes that could impact the environment.

“How are we going to do that better?” Well, we need some innovation,” Shaw said.

“Historically, we have typically done that mission set mostly using sensors here on the planet,” he explained. But looking forward, as the US government tries to generate a more refined understanding of the cislunar environment — from the Earth all the way to the area around the Moon — “we probably need sensors in space,” he added.

The command wants to get the best possible picture of its area of ​​responsibility.

“That’s one particular challenge that we have that informs everything else that we do — we have to know what’s happening in the domain before we can actually do other things,” Shaw said.

Autonomous platforms are another area in which Spacecom leaders are keen to see further innovation.

While autonomous vehicles are typically associated with drones and self-driving cars and maritime vessels, Shaw proposed that “in no domain will it be more important to have cutting-edge autonomy enabled by machine learning than in the space domain.”

Future space-based platforms won’t be able to “wait for human operators or even machines necessarily back on Earth to tell them” how to behave, he noted. Instead, they’ll likely need to perform functions like avoiding debris and threats autonomously.

“So I urge you all to think — when you’re thinking about autonomous platforms — think not only about the terrestrial domains, but think about space. How do we take that cutting-edge innovation and capability and apply it to missions that we’re going to need to be able to do in the space domain?” Shaw said. “We’re going to need those capabilities.”

Space maneuver and logistics is another area of ​​interest for the command.

Shaw said propulsion systems that humans have developed rely on Newton’s Third Law that requires an action and reaction activity to propel an object.

“I just want to point out that we’re kind of restricted right now by the tyranny of the rocket equation. I’ve got to have mass to eject in order to move myself around within the Earth’s gravity well and beyond. How do we get past that? I’m interested in any thoughts on that and innovation along that line. I don’t see really anything on the logical horizon that’s going to be a big game-changer on that. There may be ways, though, that we incrementally get after it,” he noted.

Shaw’s team at Spacecom is now particularly interested in DARPA’s existing work on nuclear thermal propulsion — and whether it could lead to a new kind of propulsion capability applicable to their missions.

Relatedly, Shaw said the command wants to enable architectures and systems that “not only can maneuver on-demand and in new ways and such,” but also be completely supported logistically.

In his view, a new “logistic structure in space that allows us to refuel, to service, and extend lifetime and extend capability” of certain assets needs to be developed.

Making such new and innovative breakthroughs won’t be easy, but the deputy commander is bullish about the opportunities ahead.

“I believe we’re entering a remarkable era,” Shaw said. “I think we could be seeing… the very beginning of a big surge into [the space] domain that will define a new era for us similar to the age of discovery in the 1400s.”

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