A shot in the dark: shedding light on exoatmospheric situational awareness with alternate sensor utilization

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Date: Spring 2016
From: Air & Space Power Journal(Vol. 30, Issue 1)
Publisher: Air University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,509 words
Lexile Measure: 1630L

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It's not rocket science--it's harder. Missile defense is not simply a matter of intercepting a bullet with another bullet. The relative speed of the small reentry vehicle (RV) is faster than that of a bullet by an order of magnitude. Furthermore, you're often firing in the dark into a lot of clutter. However, hitting an RV is not only possible but also has become the expected outcome of rigorous testing. One area for improvement is acquiring rapid and accurate situational awareness in time to find and destroy the RV. That's where CubeSats, or small satellites, equipped with advanced sensors may shed some light on the darkness.

Introduction to Missile Defense

The ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) is an integrated architecture of land, sea, air, and space assets designed to defend the United States, deployed forces, allies, and friends against all ranges of enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight (boost/ascent, midcourse, and terminal). The missile defense architecture provides a defensive operations capability around the clock. The strategy of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is to establish a capability-based acquisition approach to field initial elements and then build upon this foundation as new technology matures. Although the currently fielded system provides effective defense for the United States against the defined ballistic missile threat, the weapon system continues development and testing to meet evolving threats. Moreover, just as the need for improved space situational awareness has long been well justified, so does a need exist to continuously improve RV discrimination capabilities for missile defense. (1) Some solutions may help in both mission areas to better defend our critical space assets and our nation.

Areas for Improvement

Even with the myriad sensors available to the Department of Defense (DOD), an area for system improvement remains fully effective battlespace situational awareness. One of many efforts under consideration to better support the missile defense war fighter is further research on target-signature exploitation and multistatic CubeSat technology. The goal involves investigating the viability of utilizing a CubeSat platform equipped with specialized payloads to determine technical feasibility of lowcost sensing for target-signature exploitation. The applicability and practicability of hyperspectral and multistatic systems, as well as data collection through CubeSat constellations, all have potential. As demonstrated through real-world events, timely missile detection, together with the typing and resolving of objects, is crucial for establishing useful tracks for the possible cueing of ground-based sensors. The challenge resides in target-signature exploitation, which is currently limited by technological capabilities and sensor availability for collection opportunities, and in the associated high cost for supporting overhead sensors.

CubeSats could support other needs of war fighters, such as time-sensitive sensor fusion, by increasing the capabilities of much-needed space situational awareness. CubeSats are just one of many solutions, whether pre-positioned in orbit or ride sharing on missile defense interceptors. Hosted payloads, redesigned command and control, and communications platforms have merit as well. Potentially, with cooperation among the DOD's combatant commands and services, MDA, and national agencies, joint system development and coordination could field solutions...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A458565003