The new “Project Apollo” by the U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command (SSC) is to embark upon three-month innovation cycles to tackle major space domain awareness problems, among them the misidentification of threat objects.

“From a set of features (behaviors, orbital data, photometry, radar cross section, RF emissions, other), classify and identify space objects within seconds,” SSC said in a description of what the command wants to improve object identification in space. “Evaluate potentially mis-identified objects which may be adversary intelligence payloads or weapons. Nominate these for further investigation…Examples may include covert operations or payloads, active satellites appearing dead, inactive, as debris, or otherwise plausibly deniable operations. Investment in this technology is warranted as camouflage, concealment, and deception are fundamental to warfare. Such a capability would aid in hostility assessments, response options, and prevent operational surprise.”

Space Domain Awareness modernization appears to be a growing focus for Space Force and DoD.

On Sept. 15, Firefly Aerospace lifted a Boeing [BA] Millennium Space Systems-built space domain awareness satellite into low-Earth orbit aboard Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle, and SSC has said that it plans to begin tactically responsive space operations in 2026 (Defense Daily, Sept. 26).

In the next year to 18 months, the Defense Innovation Unit wants to conduct the VICTUS HAZE mission to demonstrate rapid launch of a satellite and its positioning near a simulated spacecraft to inspect it.

Two key U.S. Space Force space domain awareness systems are to be the 

Northrop Grumman [NOC] Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability and the Space Force/National Reconnaissance Office SILENTBARKER satellites, the first of which launched on Sept. 10 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla.

The SILENTBARKER satellites are to be an exponential leap in geosynchronous orbit indications and warning for the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN), which includes the 1980s-era Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance telescopes and cameras at Socorro, N.M., Maui, Hawaii, and the island of Diego Garcia; about 30 ground-based radars, including the RTX [RTX] Globus II in Vardø, Norwayfour Northrop Grumman Geosynchronous (GEO) Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites, launched between 2014 and 2016; and two GSSAP birds launched on Jan. 21, last year.

While GSSAP tracks individual GEO satellites, SILENTBARKER is to provide a wide picture of the GEO belt.

The primary, new ground-based space tracking system is to be the $1.6 billion Space Fence radar system by Lockheed Martin [LMT]–a system that is to track objects mostly in LEO but also in GEO. Located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the solid-state S-band radar system achieved initial operational capability on March 27, 2020.

Space Force envisions artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) as another key part of space domain awareness modernization (Defense Daily, May 24).

The first of the “Project Apollo” innovation cycles is to begin on Oct. 26 at the Colorado Springs Space Domain Awareness Tools, Applications and Technology (TAP) Lab–an initiative of Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, the SSC commander, to take a Project Maven approach to ease government-industry data sharing.

In April, Guetlein briefed AI/ML companies in Silicon Valley on how they might satisfy Space Force needs. Those AI/ML firms included Anduril, Inc. [AI] and Microsoft [MSFT].

Maj. Sean P. Allen, the chief of the SSC TAP Lab, said in an SSC statement on Oct. 10 that “each innovation cycle is designed to target solutions at a Technology Level Readiness (TLR) of 4 or above that are scoped to address specific challenge statements provided to each cohort in advance.”

Beside reducing the misidentification of space objects, SSC wants the first “Project Apollo” innovation cycle to propose solutions to provide advanced–likely AI–decision aids, for an operations command and control center and to detect space launches within seconds under a “space launch custody” challenge.

“Using unclassified novel data, fusion, and analytic techniques (seismic, ionospheric, infrasonic, GPS telemetry, RF [radio frequency], neutrino, other), to detect space launches within seconds,” SSC said on Oct. 10. “Upon detection of a launch, predict the ascent trajectory, intermediate and final orbits. Provide these predictions to a space domain awareness sensor as a ‘cue’ to reacquire and track the launch vehicle within seconds-to-minutes. Investment in this technology is warranted as no launch detection or early ‘cueing’ capability exists for the commercial Space Domain Awareness Enterprise. Such a capability would enable rapid target acquisition, ID, and threat assessment of launches.”