If it’s cheaper to get to geostationary orbit, officials can do more launches, which makes it easier to send large equipment up in pieces to maneuver and assemble in space. And once you can operate this way in geostationary orbit, making the jump to the moon isn’t that much of a stretch, Butow said.
“As soon as you go to that approach where you’re doing modular components, you’re no longer constrained to have things fit into rocket fairing,” said Butow, who has been at the Defense Innovation Unit since it was established. “It’s also a perfect time to be doing this because if you can get to geostationary orbit, you can get into lunar orbit very easily.”
The organization has a history of helping new technologies flourish in the commercial market, Butow said, pointing to a past project that sought out satellites that could monitor the Earth even at night and through cloudy weather, which obscures the view of traditional cameras.
“There were no U.S. providers of commercial synthetic aperture radar imagery who could do that. There’s a handful of them today and that’s because we catalyzed it working with companies that were new startups back then,” he said.
Butow, who previously developed instruments to study Martian soil at the nonprofit SETI Institute, also discussed what he looks for in potential commercial partners and how using commercial data from space can have real-world national security advantages.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the mission of the space portfolio at DIU?
We really want to accelerate and strengthen the Defense Department’s adoption of commercial technology. Smartphones are a great example. We go out and buy or lease them. We use them and when we need a new one, we just go and replace it. We don’t have to have huge programs or sustainment costs or overhead to do something we can just get from private industry. DIU looks at how we can take that commercial solution and make it an even better fit for defense operations.
One example is Planet [a commercial Earth observation company]. Their mission is to observe the Earth every day and bring in new insights and help understand the planet and the impact of climate change. But they have a lot of sensors so we can just go to them as a service contract and say, “We want to subscribe to your data and use it.” Maybe we can work with an AI company to look at that data and find a way to give us some early indication and warning of things that could be a potential threat.
A great example is, let’s say if you have a mass migration somewhere in Africa. The first you may learn of that is when you see it in imagery. What’s the cause of that? Oftentimes, those are early indications and warnings of conflict and other things. When you can make an early interdiction on a crisis, you can hopefully avert it. The wonderful thing about commercial [data] is it’s not classified, so we can share that information freely with friends, allies, regional partners and nongovernmental organizations who are trying to effect a positive outcome.
How long has the space portfolio existed?
We started the portfolio with a reboot [of DIU] in 2016. Our very first project is Peacetime Indications and Warnings. It was basically working with commercial satellite providers to bring in data that they’re collecting. But instead of sending us stacks of photos and having humans look at that, we take the data and run a computer vision algorithm using AI to look for patterns of life and changes in patterns of life.
One example of an anomaly is two ships right next to each other in the open ocean. They’re obviously transferring something. There’s probably some smuggling or something nefarious going on. What’s nice is we have the opportunity to have the algorithms find it and we pass that information onto someone. That could be the Coast Guard or Navy going after illegal fishing. It could be weapons or drug deals.
What did this project accomplish?
When we started this project three years ago we wanted satellites that could monitor in day, night and all weather. There were no U.S. providers of commercial synthetic aperture radar imagery who could do that. There’s a handful of them today and that’s because we catalyzed it working with companies that were new startups back then. They’re doing really well. We’re pretty excited about that.
Another program we started in 2017 was called Small Responsive Launch. It was fun because what we wanted was low cost, high cadence launch to quickly put small payloads into low Earth orbit, but to put them into the mission-designed orbit. We wanted to deliver a payload to a specific address.
Most small satellites going up at the time were taking a ride share. They were strapped onto big rockets going to some location where a primary big satellite was going and they would ride along. That’s good for science, but if you’re going to do an Earth observation mission you want to put satellites where you need them, not where somebody else is going.
We gave Rocket Lab their first big contract for commercial services before they started flying. Now Rocket Lab has been way out front doing extraordinarily well. We just recompeted that to go for slightly bigger rockets, up to 1,200 kilograms which is quite a bit of mass. Using smaller rockets, the cost is coming down. It’s not as cheap as doing ride share with SpaceX, but [it’s a good option] if you need to get a payload to an exact location and also not be secondary to delays caused by the primary payload. Access to space has increased significantly with these companies coming onboard. The Space Test Program we support, it’s the first time in years that they’ve almost run out of payloads to launch into space because of the increased access.
So what’s the next big thing?
One thing we started discussing is, what if we could increase access and significantly reduce the cost of getting to geostationary orbit, which is where we have a lot of capability for communications. If we could reduce the cost and increase the access, it makes it easier to do interesting things. One thing we could do is to go to more modular components so we could build things in space and service these things in space.
If we can create a logistics infrastructure and call them space tugs or in our solicitation we call them multi-orbit logistics vehicles, what if we could get things and move them from LEO to higher orbit and have the ability to move parts or maybe an upgrade? For example, if we have a satellite in place and five years have passed, so we want to put a new processor on it. We want to get to a sustainable infrastructure and have the ability to move things back and forth.
We’re working with a bunch of different companies now to look at how we can do this. It’s really exciting. As soon as you go to that approach where you’re doing modular components, you’re no longer constrained to have things fit into rocket fairing. It’s also a perfect time to be doing this because if you can get to geostationary orbit, you can get into lunar orbit very easily.
What’s the status of that effort?
Last year we contracted with a few companies and did studies to look at orbital outposts. We awarded three contracts. Awards for multi-orbital logistics are starting to happen now.
What do you look for in companies?
When we look at any new idea, we look at three things. The first thing we do is look at technical feasibility. Would this technology actually work? Are the physics right?
Then we look at commercial viability. We don’t want to create defense contractors who are solely dependent on the U.S. government for their existence. We want to find things that have that commercial viability. What other kinds of markets are they in? I used Planet as an example earlier. They sell globally for agriculture and all kinds of markets. We don’t want to distract them from selling their goods to whoever their primary customers are.
The third thing more so today is ownership. Who owns these companies? It doesn’t have to be a U.S. company. A lot of our friends and allies come up with technology all the time that solves interesting problems. One synthetic aperture radar company that’s successful is ICEYE in Finland, so we bought data from them. But there are also a lot of nefarious actors out there. We want to make sure companies are in good shape and well-postured to sustain us into the future.