Air Force "Hardens" Satellites to Prepare for Space War

The Air Force is pursuing "radiation hardening" of space assets to prepare for substantial space war.

Photo credit - National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration - US Dept. of Commerce

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

Air Force space technology and weapons developers are working quickly to prepare for major space war by accelerating new weapons programs and fast-tracking satellite protections or "hardening" systems.

Part of this challenge not only involves defending laser attacks or "jamming" weapons in space, but also hinges upon reconciling the advantages of using smaller form factors for space assets with the increased radiation challenges they present.

Building upon a 33-percent funding increase offered by the 2019 budget proposal, Air Force officials say the service is increasing research, testing and experimentation for Air Force Space initiatives and moving quickly toward more of a “war footing” in the Space domain.

“The space budget focuses on building more jam-resistant GPS satellites, improving missile warning, improving space situational awareness and increasing the nation’s ability to defend its most vital assets on orbit. It adds additional resilience features and user protection to existing satellite communication systems,” Maj. William Russell, Air Force Space spokesman, told Warrior Maven.

Rapid global technological growth, included advances in laser, electronic warfare, cyber and jamming technologies have engendered an urgent need for the Air Force and Pentagon to ramp up space weapons and defenses. As part of this equation, it is lost on nobody within DoD that both China and Russia have been testing Anti-Satellite weapons - ASATs.

This phenomenon has also inspired a fast-growing DoD focus on creating enabling technologies for a GPS-denied environment.

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While newer space technology can succeed in generating an overall improvement in size, weight and power, this has the effect of condensing power consumption into a smaller volume and therefore bringing increased reliability risks.

Larger numbers of smaller, more dispersed or dis-aggregated satellites and components enabled by technical advances are a key component of the Air Force’s space strategy.

This then is, of course, an integral component in the service’s efforts to identify and mitigate any challenges introduced by the use of smaller form factors.

This phenomenon is a significant element of the Air Force’s now heavily emphasized space strategy; Secretary Heather Wilson has specifically mentioned redundancy and resilience as indispensable components of the service’s pivot to a more robust space war posture.

“Smaller volume is harder to accommodate in the vacuum of space. The result is hot spots in electronics which tend to erode long-term reliability,” Dave Rea, director of Space Systems at BAE Systems, told Warrior Maven in a written statement.

Smaller form factors in space, for instance, can be more susceptible to experiencing radiation damage.

“Smaller technologies also have more issues with upsets and transients caused by charged particles, including heavy ions and protons. Newer technologies store less charge and require less charge to switch. The energy associated with charged particles is constant, so the impact to newer, smaller technologies is typically more pronounced,” Rae explained.

BAE Systems, which supports a wide array of U.S. military satellites, is working on radiation tolerance technology engineered to improve reliability. Missions involving this technology include ensuring secure military communications, imaging for commercial communications and various kinds of environmental monitoring.

Charged radiation particles from the sun are much more damaging to electronics in space; the atmosphere protects Earth from particles to a much greater extent, BAE experts say.

Air Force developers further add that improving satellite protections from radiation brings the added advantage of helping protect against various kinds of space attacks – such as electronic jamming.

Photo Credit - NASA.GOV

Given these challenges, the Air Force is massively stepping up its emphasis upon “radiation hardening” of space assets as part of a sweeping strategy to protect satellites against attacks, improve reliability and bring faster computer processing speeds to the space domain.

As a result, when it comes to improving the reliability of space systems and ensuring an effective transition to smaller assets, the Air Force is working closely with industry to better safeguard satellite sensor and guidance technology from radiation interference, developers at BAE Systems and Cobham said in recent interviews.

Cobham, for example, is working to hardened satellites while reducing the size, weight and power of its space technologies by using smaller packaging designs, among other things.

“Cobham designs radiation hardened, high reliability standard microelectronic products and custom Application Specific Integrated Circuits to realize significant benefits in dynamic power, cell density, and radiation-hardened performance,” Sanjay Parthasarathy, acting Senior Vice-President and General Manager for Cobham Semiconductor Solutions, told Warrior Maven in a written statement.

Other BAE Systems experts, such as Jim LaRosa, program director for space computers at BAE, said that charged particles can impact a space device, causing significant damage.

“It can essentially deposit charge into a circuit causing electronic noise and signal spikes within the device. This can result in erroneous data or bad commands being passed,” LaRosa said.

LaRosa added that more computing power is needed in space because sensor technology is so advanced that it is generating a high volume of data.

“You need more computer power as your applications get more complex. We have a new 45 nanometer technology which enables a dramatic increase in on-board processing capacity for satellite payloads,” he said.

Pentagon leaders in the space and intelligence community are acutely aware of the rapid increase in space computing, processing power, data and the need to increase reliability and further secure systems against fast growing threats.

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Kris Osborn can be reached at Krisosborn.ko@gmail.com

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