Space Force opens new office to foster ties with private sector

CHANTILLY, Va. With a ceremonial ribbon cutting, Space Systems Command on June 6 marked the opening of its new office and conference center dedicated to doing business with the commercial space industry.

The command called the facility COSMIC, short for Commercial Space Marketplace for Innovation and Collaboration.

Space Systems Command, headquartered in Los Angeles, oversees most military space acquisition programs. The new workspace in Northern Virginia will serve as headquarters for the command’s new commercial space office.

In remarks at the unveiling, Lieutenant General Michael Guetlein, head of Space Systems Command, said COSMIC is a recognition of the critical role commercial space technologies play in maintaining a competitive edge in modern warfare and national security.

The elegant property features 10,000 square feet of conference and office space for unclassified meetings. The Air Force Research Laboratory and the nonprofit Virginia Tech Applied Research Corp. are partners who share the facility.

Guetlein said that soon after command set up a Commercial Services Office last year, later renamed the Commercial Space Office, it told its director to look for a location in Chantilly due to its proximity to the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and other government organizations that work with commercial space companies.

We needed a place where we could collaborate, a place where we didn’t have to fight against a lot of security measures to have conversations, Guetlein said.

The Commercial Space Office, or COMSO, is led by Colonel Richard Kniseley and is based in Los Angeles. There will be a small permanent staff in Chantilly, mainly responsible for administration and contracts.

COMSO is an umbrella organization for existing units including the Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO), the Space Domain Awareness Marketplace, the SSC Front Door, SpaceWERX, and the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve (CASR) program.

All in the same fight

Guetlein noted that the military has worked closely with the private space industry for decades, but the environment is changing as the DoD becomes more reliant on commercial systems. You mentioned the conflict in Ukraine, where commercial satellite networks have been targeted and are still under threat.

The thing that’s really changed in the space environment is that we’re all in the exact same battle at the exact same time, he said.

We are all on the opponent’s threat list. They have declared each of us a target. Whether you are a civilian ally of the government or even a business partner of ours, Guetlein added. We are all operating in the exact same environment, subject to the exact same physics, trying to compete for the exact same spectrum allocation. So we’re all in this together.

The CASR Commercial Enhancement Initiative will explore ways to partner with commercial space companies so that their services can be accessed during national security emergencies.

One option is to create the space equivalent of the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet, or CRAF, a program conceived by the Pentagon 70 years ago to gain access to commercial airlift capability in an emergency.

COMSO plans to hold another round of discussions with industry executives in July to figure out the way forward.

We need to make sure we can count on our partners’ presence during a crisis, Guetlein said. Business partners have demonstrated a commitment to being there during times of conflict. And commercial innovation is accelerating to the point where they’re an absolutely incredible capability, she said. This is absolutely the right time to build new partnerships.

Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, commander of Space Systems Command. Credit: US Air Force photo by Cherie Cullen

Where’s the money?

Guetlein noted that there is still skepticism in the space industry about government promises to spend more money on commercial products and services.

The one question I get from the industry every time is where is the money? he said. Space Systems Command has estimated that it currently spends about $4 billion annually on commercial space services, primarily on satellite communications and data from commercial satellites.

The aim is to create a dedicated budget line for commercial services to get better visibility into where those efforts are and, more importantly, so that we can be transparent with the industry about where we are invested.

Application for commercial technology

During a meeting with reporters on June 6, Kniseley said his office is working on several efforts to attract commercial sellers and create demand from military users.

The largest chunk will continue to be satellite communications, with approximately $850 million in commercial contracts expected annually across the Department of Defense.

COMSO wants to expand online marketplaces, Kniseley said, similar to what already exists for spatial domain awareness data.

The SDA marketplace now has 11 vendors offering commercial data on space objects and in-orbit traffic. The companies have complained, however, that the market does not generate significant revenue and that the Space Force is not taking full advantage of commercial capabilities.

Colonel Richard Kniseley heads the Space Systems Commands Commercial Space Office. Credit: US Air Force photo by Cherie Cullen

Kniseley said his office is working with the US Space Command to help build the SDA market and integrate commercial data so it’s useful to operational commanders.

A new market for surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking (STR) has recently been introduced. This includes electro-optical and radar satellite imagery and data analysis, although details are still being worked out with the NRO and NGA, the intelligence agencies that oversee image acquisition and analysis.

In recent weeks, US Africa Command contacted COMSO to ask for help in tracing the source of a chemical spill that was affecting hundreds of fishermen in Guinea, West Africa. With commercial SRT data, we’ve effectively reduced the suspected culprits from 350 vessels to five. And we think we’ve already figured out who that culprit was, Kniseley said.

In the SRT market, he said, we will work with the NRO on commercial imagery, but there are other vendors out there that aren’t necessarily under contract to the NRO who are in a different mission area, he said. I’m looking at this more from a tactical point of view and less from a strategic point of view, because we’re going to have to get quicker responses at the tactical limit.

Some new areas where the Space Force is considering purchasing commercial services include positioning, navigation and timekeeping that do not rely on GPS, and weather data to support military operations.

Guetlein mentioned another potential market for data analytics centered around infrared satellite sensors.

There is already significant work underway in that area at the Space Systems Commands Tools Applications and Processing (TAP) laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, he said, where government analysts, private contractors and university researchers use intelligence artificial to analyze data from military missile-warning satellites.

The data is applied not only for national defense uses, but also for natural disaster response, firefighting, and other applications.

We will create a similar lab in Colorado Springs for space domain awareness and a similar lab for surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking to expose all that data at the unclassified level, Guetlein said.

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