Underlining the growing importance of the space domain, the Commonwealth plans to invest around seven billion dollars in developing ADF space capabilities over the coming decade.
The investment in space is flagged in the Defence Strategic Update 2020 (DSU2020) and underpinned by the announcement in May of the creation of a dedicated Space Division within the RAAF, to be led by the current Head Air Force Capability, Air-Vice Marshal Cath Roberts.
The Space Division will come into being in January 2022 and will assure Defence’s access to space, enabling multi-domain operations by overseeing the development of a sovereign space capability. While a sovereign satellite capability will be delivered under other projects, the establishment of a sovereign space domain awareness (SDA) program first will be a key enabler.
“We use space daily for understanding the weather, navigating, access to geospatial information and sharing information across Australia or across the world,” Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld noted when he announced the formation of an RAAF Space Division. “Defence is delivering capabilities including space domain awareness, sovereign controlled satellite communications and space-based Earth observation, and navigation.”
To oversee the development of a sovereign SDA capability, Defence launched JP9360, (Space Domain Awareness) in 2020, which brings six earlier projects together as a single program. In September this year, Defence further briefed industry that the delivery of capability under the overarching JP9360 project will be sought via a series of tranches that will take advantage of maturing technologies.
Why SDA is important
Modern society is heavily dependent on space-based systems for its day-to-day existence. Things we all take for granted, such as ATMs, internet banking, mobile telephones, GPS-based navigation systems and vital services such as air traffic control are heavily dependent on space-based systems. From a Defence perspective, many modern weapons, navigation and communications systems are also reliant upon satellite-based position and timing services.
Space is also becoming an increasingly congested environment and malicious intent by an enemy aside, the exponential growth of objects in space – both close to the surface in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and further out into the cosmos in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) – increases the risk of collision on almost a daily basis.
According to the European Space Agency (ESA) in January 2021 there were more than 34,000 objects orbiting the Earth, each one larger than 10cm in size. Under its Starlink communications program, Elon Musk’s Space X has plans to add more than 40,000 satellites into LEO in coming years and the rapid commercialisation of the space industry is expected to add many thousands more.
Objects in orbit travel at speeds of around ten kilometres per second and even something as small as a flake of paint deposited in space during the launch process has the potential to disable a satellite. Even worse, every collision creates more space debris, further increasing the risk of collisions occurring. This is known as the Kessler Syndrome, named after NASA astrophysicist Donald Kessler who, in 1978, predicted the continued generation of space debris will reach a point where collisions become inevitable.
Formerly known as Space Situational Awareness (SSA), Space Domain Awareness is therefore a critical priority and the largest contributor to this is the US, which maintains a network of sensors distributed around the world – including Australia – as part of its Space Surveillance Network (SSN). Data collected by the SSN is transmitted to the US Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, where it is collated into a master Space Objects Catalogue and distributed (in unclassified form) to the wider space community.
With all of this in mind, the desire to have a sovereign awareness of space will be pivotal to a Defence satellite capability over the coming years.
“We know that space is not a benign environment where everyone plays nicely, we need to be able to independently verify whether our satellites are experiencing a malfunction or if they’re under attack, so we can make the right decisions to protect and defend them,” Director General Air Defence and Space, Air Commodore Philip Gordon, explained. “SDA is absolutely critical to space control and everything we do in space. It seeks to give us an independent ability to assess and verify what’s going on in space, and at the same time contribute to a broader SDA enterprise with the US and our allies.”
In addition, as powers in the Indo-Pacific region further develop intra- and inter-theatre missile capabilities, the knowledge of what should be in space and what shouldn’t has become a cornerstone of Australia’s desired Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) capability.
“We want to make sure we consider data on everything above the surface of the Earth (arbitrarily determined to be more than approximately 100km), as it turns out, some of the things we really care about start in the atmosphere, travel through space and then come back into the atmosphere,” AIRCDRE Gordon added.
Australia has been contributing data to the US SSN in the civil domain for many years, largely through the capabilities of EOS Space from its facilities at Mt Stromlo in the ACT and Learmonth in WA. From a military standpoint, SDA activities are also being undertaken from Australia, albeit in conjunction with the US and our unique geographical position – coupled with relatively benign weather patterns, a stable political system and a growing and skilled space industry – provides the basis for a sovereign SDA network.
Under Air 3029 Phase 1 a US C-Band Space Surveillance Radar (SSR) was relocated from Antigua in the Leeward Islands and installed in a purpose-built facility at Learmonth, beginning in 2014. The facility is operated by Australian personnel with data received transmitted back to the US and achieved Final Operational Capability (FOC) in March 2017.
In addition, a Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) installed at Learmonth under Air 3029 Phase 2 is expected to become fully operational in coming years. The SST will offer a wide-field view of deep space, including the ability to track dimly-lit objects out in the GEO belt. Also installed in a purpose-built facility, the SST achieved the ‘First Light’ milestone (denoting the first image recorded) in March 2020 and training of RAAF air surveillance operators began in April this year.
Sustainment of the SSR and SST will fall under the auspices of JP9360, as will the construction of a co-located SST Mirror Recoating Facility (MRF), beginning in 2022. The on-site MRF facility will reduce the risk of damage to the telescope’s large and expensive mirrors, which would otherwise have to be shipped to a US-owned facility in Hawaii.
A sovereign space capability
Launched in July 2020, JP9360 consolidates six space surveillance projects – Air 3029 Phase 2, Space Surveillance Telescope Relocation; JP9350 Phase 1, ADF SSA Mission System; JP9351 Phase 1, ADF SSA Indigenous Sensors; JP9352 Phase 1, Space Surveillance Radar Replacement; JP9355 (Overhead Persistent Infra-Red Enhancement); and JP9356 (Overhead Persistent Infra-Red Enhancement) – into a ‘program of programs’ approach.
JP9360 (Space Domain Awareness) aims to deliver a distributed, multi-technology and multi-layered approach and among the capabilities sought are threat warning, attribution and detection, tracking, and the ability to characterise natural and man-made objects.
After considering industry responses to a Request for Proposal (RFP) released in mid-2020, CASG’s Wide Area and Space Surveillance Project Office (WASS SPO) and Space Acquisition Project Office (SAPO) released a revised roadmap in September and will now seek to deliver capability under a number of tranches.
The ‘tranched’ approach is intended to be flexible enough to respond to rapidly-developing sensor and mission control systems technology and acquisition of the first tranche, in the form of ground-based optical (GBO) sensors, is expected to begin in mid-2022. Further tranches are expected to be offered for government consideration on a roughly two-year cycle.
AIRCDRE Gordon said GBO solutions are felt to be more technically mature than other proposals at the present time and although they will initially be operated by industry, under a ‘Data as a Service’ (DaaS) mechanism, later tranches of JP9360 will seek to acquire a sovereign mission system.
“We’ve chosen that path deliberately to de-risk this (initial) tranche and make some early progress, (because) we don’t have to build facilities. We can pay industry to deliver a DaaS capability – we don’t have to go through a Public Works process, we can pay industry to deliver a DaaS capability and we believe that gives us the ability to work at the speed of relevance. We’re not choosing one GBO sensor, I’ve challenged the team to find a way to support up to three companies to deliver three different systems, so we can start receiving a diversity of information,” AIRCDRE Gordon explained.
“Importantly, we’re not choosing between different types of submarines, we’re choosing which will be the next batch of capabilities we introduce into our system, and which will need more time and investment to mature. This is not a binary choice, but about building out multiple sensors to give us multiple vantage points.”