Newest sats launched by DoD include jammer-evading, classified payloads


Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne on July 2 lofted seven small satellites to Low Earth Orbit for DoD’s Space Test Program. (Virgin Orbit / Dae Dae)

WASHINGTON: Among the seven experimental satellites launched last week by Virgin Orbit for the Pentagon’s Space Test Program is a “cognitive” radio frequency system built by Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) designed to enable jam-proof, high-speed satellite communications through the fog of electronic warfare.

The experimental CubeSat, called Recurve, uses artificial intelligence/machine learning to autonomously decide how to route data through large constellations of interlinked satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), called “mesh networks,” to ensure that the right information is relayed to the right user at the right time in the right place, according to an AFRL press release today.

“Recurve advances us towards a vision of ubiquitous communication networks, to include beyond line of sight, to ensure that our warfighters have the information they need both quickly and reliably,” said Lt. Col. David Johnson, AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate’s Integrated Experiments and Evaluations division chief.

Recurve was designed and built by AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate entirely in house, the release added.

Cognitive RF systems essentially can reconfigure themselves by sensing what spectrum bands are best available (i.e. clear from noise caused by weather and/or enemy jamming), and rapidly hop to different frequency bands to ensure uninterrupted transmission. This technology thus can provide an added layer of resiliency to that already provided by mesh networks, which already have the advantage of being able to connect directly to as many other nodes as possible in space, in the air and on the ground, and work together to route data to and from users without being dependent on any one satellite.

This capability will be critical to the various “proliferated LEO” satellite constellations under development by the Space Development Agency, such as the Transport Layer of data relay satellites that is to serve as the backbone of the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) capability.

‘Straight Up’ For Army, Aerospace, Mystery Agency Payloads

The AFRL sat and the other six payloads carried on the July 2 Virgin Orbit launch, called Straight Up, were provided by the Pentagon’s Space Test Program, which essentially serves as a broker for Defense Department and NASA experimental launches. Virgin Orbit uses a modified 747 jetliner called Cosmic Girl for its LauncherOne rocket system to launch spacecraft to LEO.

The launch itself was procured by the Space Force, under the Rocket Systems Launch Program that buys services from small and mid-sized launch providers. The launch last week included three other national security-related payloads of interest.

First, the Gunsmoke-L is a classified experiment under the Army’s Tactical Space Layer prototyping project managed by Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC). The service has developed and launched a series of Gunsmoke satellites with slightly different, but extremely vaguely and sometimes interchangeably described, missions since 2018. The Gunsmoke-L experiment launched last week involved two small 6U (i.e. made up of six 10 x 10 x 10 modules) CubeSats built by Dynetics, described by the Army as “tactical space support vehicles,” but most likely are testing an RF geolocation capability to allow troops to maneuver deep in enemy territory where GPS is denied.

Another bird, the Slingshot-1, is a 12U CubeSat satellite from Aerospace Corporation designed to fast-track “development of modular and autonomous technologies by leveraging the potential for open standards and non-proprietary interfaces to simplify and expedite payload development and integration,” according to a July 2 press release. The CubeSat somewhat remarkably is carrying 19 tiny payloads, 16 of which were built by Aerospace, which is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) rather than a defense contractor. Among the Aerospace payloads are “Vertigo, a reconfigurable attitude control system that enables satellites to find targets on Earth; Blinker, a GPS transponder for space traffic management; HyPer, a hydrogen peroxide thruster delivering high performance for small satellites; and LaserComm, a next-generation space-to-ground laser communication downlink,” the release says.

Finally, the Modular Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance B (MISR-B) is classified effort for an unspecified agency. Developing and procuring intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites traditionally have been the purview of the National Reconnaissance Office, but over the past year or so the Space Force has been advocating to take over acquisition of ISR birds aimed at what it calls “tactical ISR” aimed at rapidly providing battlefield commanders with ISR imagery.

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