The AFRL is looking to build its technical workforce and partner with private companies, said Col. Jeremy Raley, chief executive of space vehicles.
WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicle Branch hopes to launch expensive military experiments over the next three years, including a GPS-like navigation satellite, a solar-powered spacecraft, and a mission in the deep space to monitor regions around the moon.
With these space projects and others in the pipeline, AFRL seeks to strengthen its technical workforce and partner with private companiesCol. Jeremy Raley, the new chief executive of space vehicles at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, said SpaceNews.
Raley, who took command of the management last monthsaid there was a growing list of projects going “and I need people who want to come here to New Mexico or partner with the AFRL and work on those things.”
The branch, with over 800 employees and an annual budget of over $500 million, performs some of the Army’s most advanced space experiments.
“There are lots of opportunities for young engineers to really make an impact,” Raley said.
AFRL’s experiments attempt to answer questions such as how the military might deploy satellites between Earth and the Moon, use space to deploy new types of communication architectures, and extend the duration of life of satellites in orbit. “It’s going to be huge stuff and exciting stuff to work on,” Raley said. “I need junior to mid-level engineers who want to come here and make it happen.”
In addition to hire peoplethe space vehicles branch is seeking the help of an outside space industry contractor, he said.
Prior to taking over the AFRL’s space vehicle division, Raley worked at the Space Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office.
While organizations like the Space RCO need mature technologies that can be brought into use relatively quickly, at AFRL “we have to place a bunch of smart technical bets,” Raley said. Many AFRL projects support the Space Force.
An $84 million experiment slated to launch mid to late 2023 is the Satellite-3 Navigation Technology (NTS-3), which will fly to 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 victory” his office hopes to achieve in this experiment is understanding how to develop and provision user equipment in a timely manner to that it will be available 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 PNTs are able to take advantage of what we’re doing with the space segment, and we can actually move both segments together at once,” Raley says.
Looking ahead to 2025, the AFRL plans to launch a $100 million experimental satellite to collect solar energy in outer space for use on Earth. The demonstration, named Arachneis part of a series of solar energy experiments that the AFRL seeks to continue.
If Arachne is successful, it could help develop technologies to provide solar power to military forces in the field so they can deploy without having to bring in huge fuel trucks.
An experiment is also underway to monitor deep space beyond Earth orbit. Formerly known as Cislunar Highway Patrol System (CHPS), the experiment was renamed Oracle. Raley said the lab decided to rename the project and choose a name from Greek mythology, in keeping with NASA’s preference to name moon missions after Greek gods.
“Like NASA, we will operate in these same spaces. And we’re going to look for smart ways to cooperate,” Raley said. NASA and the DoD both care about “domain awareness and understanding what’s going on there.”
The AFRL is evaluating industry proposals for Oracle, Raley said. “There are a lot of things we need to learn about how to operate, navigate and communicate from this section of space.”
A priority for the military is to “understand if other countries are operating there and what their capabilities are,” he said.
However, he added, “it is not yet 100% clear that there is much military utility in operating in cislunar space. And so a lot of what we’re doing starts to answer that question before the US government invests more in the militarization of that space.
Raley said he hadn’t seen any of the proposals submitted for Oracle. “I anticipate we will see several team deals where people take mature technologies in sensors, propulsion, navigation and timing, and bring them together.”
The Space Vehicle Branch launched in July Curla cubesat experiment intended to demonstrate radio frequency links and mesh networks in space.
Recurve, which flew on a Virgin Orbit small satellite launcher, is an 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 deliver brand new experiences, but to focus on key foundational technologies that could help Space Force across 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 has yet to achieve. experiment with.
It’s important for the future of the Space Force, Raley said. “Getting our command and control in place and getting some of that autonomy incorporated is going to have an outsized impact on the economy of the force.”
This is another way of saying that the Space Force has a small workforce and needs to automate its operations as much as possible. “We don’t invite many more people to come and fly all the satellites,” he said. “As we move to 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, the AFRL is experimenting on the ground using quadcopters in a cage and giving them a goal without telling them how to do it, Raley said. “We are taking what we learn from it 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 redirect traffic when a satellite is jammed, 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 to reschedule the mission.”