Air Force strengthens ground control data for satellites with cyber upgrades



Air Force strengthens ground control data for satellites with cyber upgrades

The Airforce is focusing on its ground-based control and data processing systems for the latest upgrade of the Space-Based Infrared (SBIR) system’s cyber capabilities and security.

 Cyber enhancements will most likely include improving the ground-based operators’ abilities to characterize threats and increase the security of data as it is transmitted from the SBIR orbiting satellites and hosted payload sensors through more sophisticated encryption and more rapid transfer, industry developers said.  

The SBIR system developer, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. (Lockheed Martin), will receive $15 million in additional funding to improve the cyber technology used by the ground control centers, primarily located at Buckley Air Force Base, CO.

The recent demand for improved cyber capabilities follows last year’s Block 10 upgrade, which consolidated SBIR ground systems at the Buckley site, and upgraded ground control and data processing of SBIR information, explained David Sheridan, Vice President of Lockheed Martin’s Overhead Persistent Infrared Systems mission area.

SBIR technology is designed to detect the thermo-energy signature of enemy missile launches in time to issue warnings and obtain the data necessary for missile defense and attack prevention measures, according to a Defense Systems report on U.S. space defense. The SBIR system consists of a network of orbiting satellites and hosted payloads, and ground-based control and data processing systems.

Ground-based SBIR operations include programing satellite and hosted payload locations and functions, and engaging in telemetry, tracking, and control.

According to John Keesee of MIT, this is the only communication method that allows observation and control of a spacecraft from the ground. Ground control is also responsible for analyzing and reporting incoming SBIR system data.

Maintaining the most advanced ground operating systems for space-based technology is a priority for the Air Force because “potential adversaries have taken notice of how we use space and have taken steps to replicate those capabilities for their own use and to devise capabilities to take them away from us if they ever got into conflict with us,” said Winston Beauchamp, Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space, in an interview last fall.

As for the space-based components, the SBIR satellites move in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO). According to Lockheed Martin, the GEO satellites are about 10,000 pounds, carry a GPS receiver, and can transmit encrypted communications and data back to earth.

The additional payloads, or sensors, are hosted by non-SBIR satellites that are in Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO). NASA statements explain that because the closer an object is to earth the faster it orbits, the elliptical structure allows satellites to move very slowly over an area of interest and then rapidly complete the rest of the cycle. For this reason, the SBIR program uses these 600 pound sensors attached to HEO satellites to monitor the North Polar region or reinforce data collection on other specific areas of interest.

The most recent GEO satellite launch was on January 20, 2017 and another is scheduled for late this year, according to Air Force statements, with the GEO-5 and GEO-6 versions already being developed.

The $15 million contract is a modification to the original contract with Lockheed Martin for the development and production of the SBIR system. The called-for cyber improvements are expected to be complete by June 30, 2019 with $13,394,965 worth of funding coming from the FY17 Research, Development, Test and Evaluation budget category.


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