Hypergiant Industries is working on building a new 36 satellite constellation with the U.S. Air Force —an upgrade-able system that the company hopes will be used as a low Earth orbit test range.
The company first pitched the concept of a constellation of satellites that could update “functionality and mission profiles on the fly based on real-time emergent scenarios and information” in January. Since then, Hypergiant has received funding for their Chameleon Constellation in the form of Air Force Small Business Innovation Research grants, the company told C4ISRNET, and in late June they announced the debut of the first prototype node in their system. The company is moving to get their satellites on orbit fast — the first launch is slated for early 2021.
The Department of Defense’s interest in reprogrammable satellites has grown in recent years as the military works to respond to evolving threats. The military’s traditional approach of building small constellations of large, exquisite, expensive satellites that take years to develop and are meant to last more than a decade on orbit is simply not responsive enough for some threats.
One solution with increasing buy-in from the Pentagon is the proliferated constellations operating in low Earth orbit (LEO) made up of dozens - or even hundreds - of small, relatively cheap satellites that are replaced every few years. Since those satellites are constantly being replaced by newer versions, DoD officials can be assured that the hardware and software on orbit is up to date. The Space Development Agency has been leading the department’s efforts to build its own proliferated LEO constellation.
A second and complementary approach is to build satellites that can be reprogrammed on orbit, like what Hypergiant is doing with their Chameleon Constellation. While the hardware can’t be replaced once the satellite is on orbit, the upgrade-able software gives users more flexibility in adapting the technology to the present need.
In order to build this reprogrammable constellation, Hypergiant is teaming with the Air Force to use their Platform One system as the base of the constellation’s architecture.
“Platform One provides DevSecOps/Software Services with baked-in security to DoD Programs. The Chameleon Constellation will utilize the United States’ Air Force’s secure, hardened, and accredited Platform One system as the foundational layer for the constellation’s architecture,” Ben Lamm, the company’s chief executive, told C4ISRNET. “The partnership will ensure that the Air Force has superior technical advantages in space with the ability to update satellites’ functionality and mission profiles on the fly based on real-time emergent scenarios and information.”
“We need to be able to put assets in space as quickly as possible and then continuously improve them to maintain superiority,” said USAF Maj. Rob Slaughter, director of the Department of Defense’s Platform One, in a statement. “In order for the U.S. to remain competitive and protect the systems that run the lives of everyday Americans, we created a solution that allows for maximum situation control in space.”
While the company did not share the total value of the Small Business Innovation Research grants it had received for the Chameleon Constellation, Lamm told C4ISRNET that they are working toward a phase 3 contract in excess of $10 million that would provide direct Air Force and Space Force weapon system support.
Lamm added that he was hopeful that Hypergiant’s satellites could be developed into a Space Force platform, possibly to be used as a LEO test range.
“The full expression of this relationship could absolutely become part of the Space Force platform, and we are keeping that in mind as we architect the constellation with support from the USAF and [Space Force],” he said. “As far as what’s next, we are currently discussing a Low Earth Orbit Test Range as one of the initial applications of the Chameleon Constellation.
“Our adversaries are developing ways to disrupt, deny, degrade, and destroy on-orbit assets. The LEO Test Range will be used to train operators to create strategies to protect against kinetic kill vehicle capabilities, electronic warfare, ground and/or spacecraft computer intrusions, and lasers/optical attacks,” he. said.
Lamm also further teased experimental imaging capabilities.
“We’re also currently working on an experimental imaging technology that could revolutionize and augment our existing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities,” he said. “We are still in the early experimentation phases and do not market the capability until we know it works 100% but it is something we have been devoting substantial resources towards. As this technology matures we plan on putting up a constellation as quickly as possible.”
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.