As the Space Force looks to improve its live testing and training capabilities, the service is considering upgrading existing satellites with more robust sensors to support that mission.

Through a partnership with the Pentagon’s Test Resource Management Center and the Defense Innovation Unit, Space Training and Readiness Command, or STARCOM, plans to install new space domain awareness sensors on satellites in orbit as soon as 2025.

Those sensors, designed to provide real-time information on the space environment, could help STARCOM create a secure environment to test space capabilities in orbit and train operators on live spacecraft.

“The race is on to get resilient capabilities into space ahead of emerging threats,” Space Force spokesperson Lt. Col. Meghan Liemburg-Archer told C4ISRNET in a March 25 statement. “This capability could enable a more robust on-demand test and training architecture.”

STARCOM’s plan for a live testing and training capability is just one piece of the Space Force’s broader Operational Test and Training Infrastructure, which includes a mix of simulated and in-orbit capabilities designed to train guardians and make sure satellites and ground systems work as designed.

The service’s fiscal 2025 budget request includes $196 million in research and development funding to establish a National Space Test and Training Complex, or NSTTC — a significant jump from the $21.8 million it asked for in FY24.

As for the upgrade mission, details on its potential scope are slim, and Liemburg-Archer said the service is still determining how many sensors it will buy and which satellites it will install them on.

Katalyst Space Technologies, an Arizona-based startup, is providing its SIGHT sensor for the effort as well as its Retrofit Attachment System, which allows it to install a sensor to a satellite in orbit. SIGHT was designed to track debris and other space objects, including active satellites.

DIU awarded Katalyst a $4.5 million contract in January, the funds for which were provided by the Test Resource Management Center, which is also interested in better understanding how satellites could be used to support testing in multiple environments — including for hypersonic systems.

Ghonhee Lee, the company’s CEO, told C4ISRNET the initial contract was for the first ground test unit, which will complete testing this summer. The firm is awaiting additional funding to begin building the flight unit, he said, noting that the prolonged fiscal 2024 appropriations process slowed down that effort.

For the installation itself, the Space Force is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which runs a program with the Naval Research Laboratory called Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, or RSGS, that aims to demonstrate the ability to inspect and service satellites using a mechanical arm.

Space Logistics – a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman — will fly the RSGS payload, which is set to launch in early 2025.

Lee said Katalyst will work with DARPA and Space Logistics to coordinate and rehearse the installation process and then Katalyst’s analytics software will be sent to government operations centers to support the mission.

The Space Force declined to comment on the timeline, saying information about the schedule is “restricted” and the mission has technical challenges that need to be resolved. Lee noted that the timing is tight and largely dependent on continued funding, including money in the fiscal 2025 budget request meant to support the mission.

Along with schedule pressure, Lee said he’s concerned the effort could end up being a one-off demo rather than an expanded program to provide STARCOM with in-orbit training capability.

“There’s a major risk that this basically ends up kind of in like its own little corner and doesn’t actually make it into the broader Space Force acquisition strategy and capability roadmap,” he said.

That roadmap will drive future investment in space mobility and logistics capabilities and is still in development as the service determines what utility these systems may have for future operations. The Space Force has refueling demonstrations planned in the next few years, requesting about $14 million for those efforts in fiscal 2025, but hasn’t settled on a longer term strategy.

Lee said Katalyst’s hope is that the need for sensors to support STARCOM and the NSTTC will drive the service to consider how in-orbit repair and upgrade capabilities could bring value. If the mission is successful, he said, it could help make that case and perhaps lead to opportunities for other applications.

He added that Katalyst is in discussion with Space Systems Command — the Space Force’s acquisition arm — and the Commercial Services Office about how to scale the technology through other program offices.

“I think it’ll actually increase the adoption of the capability in SSC and the operations community at large,” Lee said. “The Space Force has already done it through the NSTTC, so then there’s already a playbook.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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