Hyten Sees Commercial Smallsat Transformation, Calls on Industry to Lead

Gen. John E. Hyten
Gen. John E. Hyten

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

LOGAN, Ut. — U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten said the entrepreneurial space sector is leading the industry into its third great transformation, one that will fundamentally change the way the military acquires and uses its space assets to protect the nation.

Giving the opening keynote address at the 29th Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah, the commander of Air Force Space Command said the service will be going into smallsats “in a big way.” He added the Air Force would continue to fly the large satellite that have become its trademark.

Rather than leading the way on small satellites, Hyten said the military is looking to private industry to provide technology and solutions. After several false dawns, the industry is in a “magical time” when it is about to blossom.

Hyten said the Air Force followed a similarly cautious approach to the entrepreneurial space launch system, where Elon Musk and his upstart SpaceX company challenged traditional launch provider United Launch Alliance. Other entrepreneurs have jumped into the market.

The high cost of launch led the military to produce large, expensive satellites that are the best performing spacecraft in the world, he said. The high cost of the satellites makes it even more crucial that launches are successful.

Moving to smaller satellites that can be deployed in constellations makes sense from a survivability standpoint, he added. It is much easier for the enemy to deny access to a single satellite. But, it’s much more difficult to take 400 satellites out of service.

Disaggregation of space assets is only one element of survivability. You also have to secure ground assets and protect against cyber attacks, he added.

In addition to smaller satellites, the Air Force needs a common ground system for receiving and processing data, Hyten said. In the past, a new ground system has been developed for each new satellite system, creating a multitude of problems.

Hyten said we’re in the third transformation of space. The first occurred with the Apollo program that landed astronauts on the moon and inspired many people to pursue careers in space. The second transformation was when the military embraced the use of space.

Hyten said everyone in Space Command is moving faster than he has ever seen them move before. However, Pentagon bureaucracy and procedures — much of it mandated by law — is “brutal” and has slowed the Air Forces efforts to transition to smaller spacecraft and new ways of operating.

He also highlighted the growing problem of space debris, urging the small satellite industry to take ownership of the problem and not make the situation worse.

The Air Force is now tracking 23,000 objects in space; that number is expected to increase to 250,000 to 500,000 when the advanced Space Fence tracking system comes on line at the end of the decade, Hyten said.

In the past year, satellite operators had to maneuver their spacecraft 83 times to avoid collisions with debris or each other. There were also 161 reports of electromagnetic interference that interrupted data transmissions, he added.

Hyten said the Air Force doesn’t want to be a traffic cop in space, but it has been forced into the role by default. An international approach that would set guidelines for acceptable behavior in space is needed.

He said there is probably a business case to be made for cleaning up debris in low Earth orbit (LEO). This is valuable real estate in space, and the most valuable property typically gets the best trash collection services.

Hyten said the last thing he wants to do is fight a war in space. That would be “nuts” because it would create so much debris that it would be difficult to operate safely and effectively in Earth orbit for generations.