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Hybrid Space Architecture Poised To Become Operational

The Defense Innovation Unit plans the program’s pending transition.

Defense Innovation Unit officials are preparing to transition the Hybrid Space Architecture (HSA) following capability demonstrations next year to warfighters during military exercises, including Cope North and Northern Edge.

Rogan Shimmin, the Defense Innovation Unit’s HSA program manager, told SIGNAL Media in a recent interview that program officials are mapping out their involvement in Cope North and Northern Edge and are interested in a handful of other exercises as well. The exercises will serve as capabilities demonstrations for warfighters prior to the program’s transition to operational status. The Defense Innovation Unit works on technologies at high readiness levels to allow for rapid transition. Officials hope to see HSA capabilities in use in 2025.

The program aims to integrate commercial and government satellites to preserve operational and informational security while enabling collaboration between military services and with allies and international partners, according to a program press release. The architecture will link multiple ground communications systems with diverse satellite networks, using all available links, including laser, radio frequency, military tactical data links and existing and future ground segment wired networks.

“We’re already in discussions with a couple of program officers on what our transition strategy is going to be—because obviously we don’t want it to be in prototype indefinitely—to transition into an operational capability,” Shimmin said, adding that the first elements of that transition could happen by October.

Both the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Space Warfighting Analysis Center have supported the program from the beginning. Now Space Systems Command, Los Angeles, a part of U.S. Space Command that develops, acquires, equips, fields and sustains space capabilities for warfighters, is seen as a probable transition partner. “We’ve been interacting very closely with Space Systems Command, who are likely to be the primary transition partner,” Shimmin said.

The Defense Innovation Unit is working primarily with the command’s newly created Commercial Space Marketplace for Innovation and Collaboration in Chantilly, Virginia. The command cut the ribbon for the new organization on June 6 and “has been a really great partner for us,” the program manager said.

Normally, program managers can easily list all the potential benefits of their programs, but the implications of the HSA are so vast, no one can predict all the impacts it will have, Shimmin suggests. “The goal is to make connectivity as ubiquitous in space as it is on the ground and just like with the internet in the 1950s, there’s a million applications we can think of, but 100 million more that we can’t.”

The expected benefits, however, include both space and terrestrial, public and private applications. “There’s going to be so much scope for new compute and storage and big data applications that can be derived from that both within the space environment and with repercussions for terrestrial applications, like all the traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance spin-offs, like pipeline monitoring, environmental monitoring, and of course military applications,” Shimmin said.

The architecture should substantially expand and enhance satellite communications, Shimmin indicated when asked to list the benefits. “Ubiquitous communications for satellites, so you can task your satellite at any time without having to wait for it to pass over the right ground station. And you can also pull data from your satellite,” he said. “It massively reduces the latency of tasking and operations for the military. But it’s also going to provide high-bandwidth data for a lot of our constellations—especially imaging constellations that are producing petabytes of data every day, most of which gets wasted because we don’t have the bandwidth to pull that down from the satellites.”

Specific types of data could include signature aperture radar, which “produces huge data because every pixel is several bytes or kilobytes of data,” the program manager explained. That could include “phase data of the radar signal that’s received,” he elaborated.

For a military program, the HSA could be described as moving at light speed. The Defense Innovation Unit first solicited solutions from industry in October 2021. It then awarded its first tranche of contracts to Aalyria, Anduril, Atlas and Enveil in July last year, and a second tranche to SpiderOak Mission Systems, Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Microsoft Azure Space in November.

Recently, the organization awarded a third tranche of contracts that were in the third phase, the contract negotiation phase, but those companies had not yet been revealed when SIGNAL interviewed Shimmin. In fact, program officials leave it to the companies to announce their contract wins before releasing the information themselves, and at least one company involved in the second tranche had not chosen to be named at the time of the interview.

The first set of contracts focused on software-defined networking solutions, the second on cloud providers and cybersecurity and the third on hardware providers with “on-orbit constellations for demonstration and test of all of the software that’s been developed today,” Shimmin said.

One reason the program can move so quickly is that the technologies needed are mostly ready to go. “When we started this, most of the technologies were fairly mature. It’s been enlightening and encouraging, how advanced they all were, and how much effort and money and thought industry has put into this problem set already,” Shimmin offered.

Shimmin credits SpaceX’s Starlink constellation with convincing the military that a space-based internet could become a reality. He noted that the idea had been discussed “for several decades” and always with the inevitable conclusion that it would be prohibitively expensive. “The inflection point has been Starlink, just industry going ahead and launching that infrastructure, which has made the Department of Defense realize that it is possible.”

The HSA-enabling technologies that have come to fruition in recent years include software-defined networking that allows “routing between spacecraft.” The capability “has been an absolutely foundational technology necessary for all of this,” Shimmin said. He added that optical communications also are “at a really cool inflection point.”

Rogan Shimmin
The goal is to make connectivity as ubiquitous in space as it is on the ground.
Rogan Shimmin
Hybrid Space Architecture Program Manager, Defense Innovation Unit

The Defense Department’s move toward zero-trust cybersecurity also plays a role in pushing the department toward the HSA. “Mesh networking brings resiliency to our communication strategy because any one satellite failing is not a single point of failure. But it increases the cyber attack surface of the internet as a whole, so we need to make sure that we embrace all of the gold standard industry security features,” Shimmin suggested.

The HSA also is expected to be self-healing. “Congestion management is inherently necessary to be part of the routing protocols,” according to Shimmin, but transmission control protocol (TCP) and transmission control protocol internet protocol (TCP IP) capabilities have largely solved that problem, he added.

The Defense Innovation Unit also is implementing a variable trust strategy with a two-part trust score for every player on the network, every satellite and every ground station. The first part, a static trust score, Shimmin likens to a credit score “based on known factors, like the hardware you’re using, the firmware security, the known foreign ownership and influence of each network, each company.”

The Defense Department can provide companies with feedback on the various ways they can improve their scores. Officials might, for example, recommend a company use hardware from a preapproved list.

The second part is the dynamic trust score similar to strategies used on the terrestrial internet that include monitoring the behavior of each network node. “If it’s a known player in the network that passes a certain amount of data each day, typically from these addresses to these addresses, and that behavior is consistent over time, it can build up a fairly good dynamic trust score,” Shimmin explained. “But if it suddenly starts pulling a whole lot more data and sending it to addresses that it has never communicated with in the past, that might be an indicator that something’s been either broken, corrupted or compromised within the network. In that set, in that regard, it can be self-healing because malicious or damaged players can be isolated.”

The enduring challenge, however, will be integrating “at least dozens” of legacy military systems, such as the Satellite Data System, onto new communications architectures. “It inevitably has to be a piece-by-piece approach. All of that is slightly policy but slightly technical, just getting each of those systems to talk to each other,” Shimmin noted. “But the technical side is really fairly simple. Then, once that’s in place, it’ll just be a matter of figuring out different use cases of how mission sets need to be able to point their satellites, for example, and what frequency bands they’re using to access those nodes that will be available.”

So, it’s a challenge without a single solution. “Some of the rapid replenishment mission sets will be able to send up new satellites with new [capabilities] like optical communications links, but some of the older, more exquisite satellites might need a gateway—the translator satellite, for example, which could be just a hosted payload within the [Satellite Data System] transport layer.

The HSA program officials are also working with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency researchers developing the Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) program, which aims to revolutionize the way space-based communications work by developing low-cost, high-speed reconfigurable optical datalinks to connect various low-earth orbit constellations. The technology should be fairly easy to adopt for the HSA, Shimmin indicated.

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