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Spacecom General Wants Satellites With Sustained Maneuverability

In the next four to five years, operations by the Defense Department in the space domain will likely be transformed, said the U.S. Space Command deputy commander.

A man in a military uniform sits with his hands clasped in front of him.
Space Force Lt. Gen. John E. Shaw
Space Force Lt. Gen. John E. Shaw, U.S. Space Command deputy commander, speaks at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, July 6, 2023.
Photo By: Screen capture
VIRIN: 230706-D-UB488-001Y

"Since the dawn of space age, we're doing it wrong. What we've really been doing is what I call positional space operations. We launch a platform into orbit and we tend to leave it right in that orbit. And the only energy state changes from that orbit tend usually to be station-keeping maneuvers, maybe some slight repositioning, depending on what you're doing," Space Force Lt. Gen. John E. Shaw said today at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. "That's not going to be sufficient anymore." 

Systems that provide communications and many DOD national security systems are probably going to remain positional, such as those used for missile warnings, he said. 

However, there are emerging sets of platforms that have to overcome this positional approach. "They need to probably spend most of their lifetime changing their energy state and maneuvering as opposed to staying in orbit," he said.

Troops work on a satellite.
Satellite Communications
Air Force Master Sgt. Joseph Wengerd, left, and Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Struikman establish military satellite communications during Exercise Vibrant Response at Camp Atterbury, Ind., April 24, 2023.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jacob Derry
VIRIN: 230424-F-YG657-1231Y

The Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program is one example where maneuverability would be desirable, he said. That program consists of satellites operating in the near-geosynchronous orbit to support Spacecom's space surveillance operations. 

Satellites in a geosynchronous orbit move in an orbit that matches the Earth's rotation. Satellites in that program look at other platforms to determine if things are working right or if there could be malfunctions, for instance on a solar panel deployment. Those satellites could also be used to determine if an adversary's satellite is behaving suspiciously with malicious intent, he said.

Troops look at a computer screen.
Ground Network
Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit command element set up a ground network in a joint light tactical vehicle while aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America in the Coral Sea, July 2, 2023. The network enables satellite communications from a local area of operations to connect with multiple areas of operation across the Indo-Pacific region.
Photo By: Marine Corps Cpl. Christopher R. Lape
VIRIN: 230702-M-MJ391-1001Y

Operating in a dynamic, more maneuverable manner would allow DOD to achieve surprise and gain the initiative against adversaries in ways not possible today, Shaw said. 

The general also said collaboration with allies, partners and other agencies is important. For instance, Spacecom shares sensor data with NASA, which helps the agency with situational awareness for manned space flights. 

A rocket streaks through space.
Rocket Launch
A Falcon 9 rocket carrying 56 SpaceX Starlink broadband satellites launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., May 4, 2022.
Photo By: Joshua Conti, Space Force
VIRIN: 230504-X-KD758-1002Y

Spacecom is also working closely with the Department of Commerce to help set up an architecture for space traffic management, as space has become increasingly commercialized, he said. 

In addition, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has highlighted the importance of space for surveillance and communications, he said. For instance, Russia has been trying to jam the GPS and navigational satellite systems used by Ukraine, and Ukraine has responded in kind. 

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