The US military is one of the most important entities in terms of developing space infrastructure that has global repercussions. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Global Positioning System, which allows precise measurement of space and time. Every day, you depend on GPS when you use your phone or make a financial transaction. Much of the data which ultimately depends on US military-built space infrastructure is used for nonmilitary purposes. To learn more about what the US military’s role in space, we spoke to Julia Rothmann, a space sector professional who previously worked for the US Air Force.
What role does the US military play in the space sector?
The US Department of Defense has had operations in space from the very beginning. As early as 1915, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (a precursor to the civilian agency, NASA) was staffed by military personnel and individuals associated with the defense industry. Early NACA R&D assisted in identifying technology for supporting military aircraft. NACA, then NASA after the 1950s, as well as the newly formed US Air Force, continued to push technological boundaries in terms of air and space. They developed planes capable of supersonic flight, then ballistic missile concepts, and ultimately manned space flight.
It’s no coincidence the Cold War and the Space Age have significant overlap. In 1957, after the Soviet ICBM launched Sputnik, there was an impression that the Americans were trailing the Soviets in science. Subsequent US launch failures did not remove that perception. However, the US scored a victory in December 1958 with the world’s first communication satellite, Project SCORE (Signal Communication by Orbiting Relay Equipment), which also successfully trialed the use of the Atlas missile as a space launch vehicle. This project was developed under the direction of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a precursor to today’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (if you don’t know ARPANET, please look into it – it’s amazing).
Beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the contributions of space systems to US military superiority became steadily stronger; military commanders and their airmen, soldiers, and sailors became more reliant on them. By the time Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced, space-based surveillance, communications, navigation, and meteorology had added speed and precision to US military operations.
There are numerous US military organizations and agencies that have a hand in building a successful space domain but it’s worth mentioning The Space and Missile Systems Center. The SMC is part of the recently formed US Space Force. It was previously an integral part of the US Air Force Space Command and is frequently identified as a center of technical excellence for developing, acquiring, fielding, and sustaining military space systems. The center is responsible for on-orbit check-out, testing, sustainment, and maintenance of military satellite constellations and other Department of Defense space systems. Certainly, SMC has attracted all of the aerospace industry giants to Los Angeles. These include Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Space X and, more recently – just outside Los Angeles, Rocket Lab.
Regarding the US military’s space activities, what are some of the general benefits to everyday people?
I’d like to identify and discuss two of the best-known US military systems that everyone uses multiple times a day: GPS & meteorological constellations.
GPS (the Global Positioning System) is now celebrating the 25-year anniversary of being a fully operational constellation. GPS data can be found in almost any industry. It can be used to map forests, help farmers harvest their fields, and navigate airplanes on the ground or in the air. GPS systems are currently being used for around the world for mining, aviation, surveying,agriculture, marine, recreation, and rather significantly, banking. Medical personnel, scientists, farmers, soldiers, pilots, hikers, delivery drivers, sailors, fishermen, dispatchers, athletes, and many others use GPS systems in ways that make their work more productive, safer, and easier.
As the international banking industry moves toward fully real-time solutions, with millisecond response times and immediate access to funds, precise timing becomes critical. As banks continue to use server time for transactional timestamps, date and time stamps, as well as location stamps, become the most important pieces of data associated with a transaction.
GPS is globally available, can be checked from anywhere, and is free for everyone to use – including banks and their mobile banking solutions. Banks need reliably precise timestamps to monitor transactions, catch fraud, and ensure money ends up in the proper hands. ATMs and cash registers use GPS data for transactions. Stock exchanges use GPS to regulate the trades that go into stock portfolios and investment funds. When you or I withdraw ATM funds or swipe our cards at a store, the underlying systems need to determine (and agree upon) the exact time that the transaction occurs. This has many uses – for example, preventing accounts from being overdrawn. Precise time information is critical given the vast amounts of financial transactions executed around the clock and around the world. In this digital world, money moves fast – to and from anywhere.
In addition to a timestamp, each transaction also has a place stamp. This provides added security in mobile banking as it indicates the plausibility of the user’s location. If a card is being used in two different places at the same time – especially two locations with significant distance between them – this can be flagged as possible fraud and worthy of investigation
Since the mid-1960s, when the Department of Defense initiated the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), low Earth-orbiting satellites have provided the military with important environmental information. The DMSP satellites “see” such environmental features as clouds, bodies of water, snow, fire, and pollution in the visual and infrared spectra. Scanning radiometers record information which can help determine cloud type and height, land and surface water temperatures, water currents, ocean surface features, ice, and snow. DMSP helps collect data for weather, climate, and environmental monitoring applications. It improves our understanding of precipitation, sea surface temperatures, atmospheric temperature and humidity, sea ice extent, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and global vegetation analysis.
Communicated to ground-based terminals, the data is processed, interpreted by meteorologists, and ultimately used worldwide. Critically, once the space vehicles are on orbit and have completed check out, weather data is disseminated to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There, the data is processed and analyzed, providing critical weather data that is used internationally.
What are some ways people can involve themselves in the space sector by piggybacking off the US military’s space activities?
As mentioned previously, both weather and GPS data are available and are readily available for exploitation. Certainly, with the rise in geographic information systems, which frequently depend on GPS data, there are many potential applications. Weather data is readily sourced from ESA or NOAA.
Additionally, the website Space-Track.orgdisplays location statuses of all orbiting space vehicles. It has been historically provided by the US military. This website promotes space flight safety, protection of the space environment, and the peaceful use of space worldwide. It does all this by sharing space situational awareness services and information with numerous actors – US and international satellite owners and operators, academics, and even amateur enthusiasts.
Access to space has historically required significant resources and therefore was frequently the domain of large nations dedicated to the space race. However, in the last decade we’ve seen a rise in the number of private launch companies (120 and counting). Improvements in sensors have allowed for the rise of smallsats and cubesats, in turn enabling the success of small companies other than the aerospace defense behemoths (e.g. Lockheed Martin). Why is this relevant? Because of the difficulty sourcing US military data directly, purchasing satellite data from private industry is becoming more common.
Monitoring of the Earth from space using satellites, also known as Earth observation, has undergone fundamental changes in the past few decades. Progress in processing algorithms has brought us a new space renaissance. We have entered an era where data exploitation is often compared to taking a drink from a fire hydrant, such is the extent of the data available.