Ohio firm protects Earth from space debris

Image courtesy of NASA Orbital Debris Program Office A computer-generated image depicts objects in the Earth’s orbit that currently are tracked. Approximately 95 percent of the objects are orbital debris.

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE – When it comes to space, dozens of countries now have satellites circling the globe, which requires an eye on the skies due to the dangers posed by falling space debris. Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, over 39,000 man-made objects have been catalogued and many of these have already come down.

The space surveillance mission falls to the U. S. Strategic Command Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space). Through its Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), it detects, tracks and identifies all artificial objects in Earth’s orbit. JSpOC tracks more than 16,000 objects currently orbiting the Earth.

The United States and its allies rely on JSpOC to provide detection and early warning about threats posed by space debris. Accomplishing this mission requires referring to multiple data sources from separate systems, which introduces the possibility for errors. Air Force Space Command recognized the need for an innovative technology to support space situational awareness beyond the existing legacy toolsets and conveyed that need to the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Working with the Air Force under a Small Business Innovation Research award, the Design Knowledge Company – a small business located in Fairborn, Ohio – developed a system to alleviate the danger posed by falling space debris. The JSpOC Mission System User Definable Operational Picture provides an Agile Work Environment (AWE) tailored to the space domain that combines data from different sources. These include legacy systems, emerging data sources, algorithms that operate on the data, and a variety of visualization, collaboration and work efficiency tools. The JMS User Definable Operational Picture integrates easily into Microsoft Office products and offers the ability to customize the interface.

According to Paul Zetocha, the AFRL program manager, assembling an integrated, common operating picture from disparate data sources for the JFCC Space Joint Planning groups is crucial when responding to high-interest events.

“Calculating and communicating trajectory data used to be a time consuming task,” Zetocha said. “Assembling a simple Microsoft PowerPoint slide from the various stovepipes could take up to an hour or more. No system prior to the JSpOC Mission System covered all aspects of the mission.”

To date, the technology is operational as JMS at Vandenberg AFB, California, and as the Aircraft Repair Visualization and Integration Simulation Support supporting logistics at Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex at Robins AFB, Georgia.

“These applications demonstrate that the technology can be used in multiple domains for all situation awareness and command and control applications,” Zetocha added. “This technology will provide an enormous cost savings across the Department of Defense.”

According to Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, “JMS represents keys to the kingdom. Given where we were five years ago, that’s remarkable. I just didn’t think we’d figure out a way to get through but we did. It’s awesome. It’s spectacular.”

As a result, the company was awarded a Phase III contract, worth close to $10 million, to further mature its technology. The enhanced technology, known as VISTA (Virtual Information for Satellite Tactical Applications), delivers actionable information to the warfighter by leveraging data fusion and visualization to compress and encode massive amounts of data and provide access to the fused visualization products “at a glance.”

The key to VISTA’s approach is providing this at-a-glance visualization and comprehension support in a near real-time fashion. With this capability, space warfighters will be able to leverage VISTA to support tactical, as well as strategic, space situation awareness functions.

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