The Pentagon taps Microsoft and Ball to pilot new military satellites

Air Force personnel at Cape Canaveral supervise the launch of a military satellite in 2019.
Air Force personnel at Cape Canaveral supervise the launch of a military satellite in 2019.
Image: USAF/ Van Ha
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The US military is trying to solve a space problem: Its most valuable satellites are huge, unprotected, and everyone knows where they are.

With Russia, China and even India demonstrating anti-satellite weapons, the space tech that keeps America’s far-flung troops connected and in-the-know is more vulnerable to attack than ever.

The solution may be found in the satellite networks being produced by a new generation of companies, many emerging from Silicon Valley. They use smaller satellites, and lots of them, flying at higher speeds much closer to Earth.

This allows more ambitious and useful constellations to be built on the cheap. From a military point of view, rivals might be able to attack or jam some of these satellites, but not take them all out of the equation.

The Pentagon has chosen satellite-maker Ball Aerospace and Microsoft’s Azure cloud business to demonstrate the computing infrastructure for a network of 20 satellites the Department of Defense is planning to launch in 2021. The partners will use new satellite antennae to pull data down from existing military satellites directly into Microsoft data centers.

The satellite demonstration contract was issued by the US Air Force’s Space and Missile Command as part of its Commercially Augmented Space Inter-Networked Operations, aka CASINO, project. The terms of the contract were not disclosed.

The operative question, from the point of view of Steve Smith, a Ball vice president leading the project, is “how do you handle large volumes of data, from large distributed constellations?”

As more communication and sensing takes place through networks of orbiting spacecraft, companies around the world are trying to answer this question. Amazon Web Services is building satellite antennae on top of its data centers, while Microsoft announced last week that it would offer commercial access to its cloud services through the space network of SES, a major satellite operator.

“As we talk to government customers, the number one thing that is constraining them today is ultimately compute resources,” Tom Keane, the Microsoft executive responsible for Azure’s global business, told Quartz. “Our aspiration is to be the world’s computer, in Azure. [This application] allows the US Air Force…to use AI to understand patterns and understand objects, and build logic on top of that.”

As warfare becomes increasingly networked, the military is also facing the challenge of ensuring that service members are constantly in touch around the world and able to share intelligence securely. Microsoft is again competing against Amazon for the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative contract, a $10 billion project to provide networking services across the US national security establishment.

The CASINO project may ultimately be the operating system for a constellation called Blackjack; the military selected the European aerospace firm Airbus to build those spacecraft earlier this year. Still, the long-term future of both programs remains tied up in Congressional spending decisions and the potential creation of a new military service branch for space.

It’s not clear yet what kind of sensor payloads or communications services the US Air Force will want for a next-generation satellite swarm if Microsoft and Ball are successful in demonstrating the abilities of such a system.

The military is trying to adopt off-the-shelf commercial parts to its own purposes. For example, the company Planet has raised some $384 million and, over nine years, developed its own comprehensive remote-imaging satellite network; the Defense Department might spend several times that developing a single imaging satellite over the same time period. The department’s imagery may be better, but its architects realize they aren’t getting sufficient bang for their buck.

One example is efforts to track North Korea’s nuclear missile launchers, which are mobile and easily hidden. Traditional radar satellites proved too expensive for Congress, but the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit signed a contract to buy data from Capella, a venture-backed firm developing a novel constellation of small remote-sensing spacecraft.