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“PIVOT!” says Relativity Space.

Change in plans for Relativity. USSF wants to task commercial sats. Combat drones receive orders from LEO. Begun, the ground segment war has. And more.





Relativity Space pivots from Terran 1 to focus on Terran R medium/heavy lift vehicles. US Space Force eyes direct tasking of commercial satellites for faster imagery acquisition. General Atomics demonstrates first-ever combat drone controlled via LEO satellite communications. Microsoft and Viasat collaborate to provide Viasat's Real-Time Earth ground service via Microsoft Azure Orbital marketplace. Kepler Communications raises $92 million for a constellation of 140 optical data relay satellites. Slingshot Aerospace to add 80 ground-based optical telescopes to improve space situational awareness in LEO. All this and more.

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T-Minus Guest

Brandon Karpf, Executive Director of N2K Networks and our Executive Producer, joins us to discuss the Space Force component command and some challenges faced by SPACECENT.

Article referenced: Space Force Is an ‘Equal Partner’ in CENTCOM, Commander Says | A&SF Magazine 

Selected Reading

Relativity Space is moving on from the Terran 1 rocket to something much bigger | Ars Technica 

Delivering Data: What customers get wrong about the ground segment | SpaceNews 

Amid commercial boom, U.S. military lacks timely access to satellite imagery | SpaceNews 

NASA's Moon Spacesuits Are Brain-Meltingly Expensive | Futurism 

GA-ASI flies MQ-20 Avenger autonomously using LEO SATCOM datalink | SatNews

Viasat real-time Earth antennas integrated on Microsoft Azure Orbital | SatNews

Kepler Communications raises $92 million for optical data relay network | SpaceNews

Slingshot’s space-tracking network to extend coverage of low Earth orbit | SpaceNews

General Atomics Completes Commissioning Of Space Environmental Testing Chambers | General Atomics 

Videos from the 2nd Annual Spacepower Security Forum

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>> Maria Varmazis: If you want to get into the heavy lift vehicle space nowadays, you've got to have sharp elbows and a lot of capital. SpaceX still dominates there. United Launch Alliance is still a considerable force, and there's other players like Rocket Lab and Blue Origin in the mix, of course. And after their Terran 1 launch, Relativity Space is making some big changes to their overall vision, and they're planning on telling the other guys, hey, we want in too. Today is April 13, 2023. I'm Maria Varmazis, and this is T-Minus. Change in plans for Relativity Space. The US Space Force wants to directly task commercial satellites. Combat drones getting orders from LEO. Begun, the ground segment war has. And my conversation with T-Minus executive producer Brandon Karpf about how the US Space Force can be an equal partner in US Central Command. All this and more, so don't go anywhere. Here are our stories for today. Change in plans, says Relativity Space. They're putting their Terran 1 out to pasture after just one launch and going full speed ahead to develop the Terran R. But based on the performance of the Terran 1, and presumably running the financials for the Terran R, they're making some changes. They're going much, much bigger, and they're scaling back a bit on their 3-D printing ambitions. So let's go over the changes here, shall we? First and foremost, as we said, after just one launch of the Terran 1, she's done. Relativity Space is scrapping plans for making waves in the smaller launch vehicle market and instead focusing all their energy on the medium to heavy launch vehicle space instead. Specifically, the next iteration of the Terran line, they're planned Terran R. "Taking an intentionally more ambitious, mature response early in the company's life now gives us experiences necessary for Terran R," said the company in a press release. So there are some changes on the Terran R front of things too. Originally, the plan for the Terran R was for it to be 95% 3-D printed. But presumably, given cost considerations, Relativity Space says it just makes more financial sense to use tried-and-true aluminum allow straight section barrels for the Terran R. They are also scaling back reusability plans for the Terran R but they're not scrapping them. "The first stage will still be reusable," says Relativity. In its reusable configuration, the new version of the Terran R will be capable of getting about 23,500 kilos to LEO, or 5,500 kilos to geosynchronous transfer orbit. Expendable versions of the Terran R could take up to 33,500 kilos to LEO. Anything over 20,000 kilos to LEO puts a vehicle in the heavy lift range. "The Terran R," says Relativity, "is a medium to heavy lift reusable rocket designed to meet customer's need for disruptive, diversified launch capabilities in an underserved and quickly growing payload market." And they're also pushing the planned maiden launch of the Terran R from 2024 to 2026. This move is meant to put Relativity Space more directly in competition with larger players, not just SpaceX but United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab to name many others. But it's a difficult and very expensive arena. Especially with only one rocket launch under their belt so far, this is quite a challenge to be taking on. But in an interview with Eric Berger at Ars Technica, Relativity Space CEO Tim Ellis says, "This move, for them, make sense. For us it's really the right place, right time. The share market opportunity is what's giving us the opportunity to lean into Terran R. If that market opportunity was not there, this would not be the right move. But it is, and it's super lucrative. And it's not clear that any of those established medium to heavy lift launch companies are going to be able to solve it." A new story from Space News says, "the US Space Force is looking to build out its capabilities to directly task commercial satellites to get imagery faster." In an interview with Space News, Space Force director of the Commercial Services Office, Jeremy Leader, says this: "You can never buy enough time when you're a combatant commander, so I've been less focused on buying the imagery from these companies and more focused on the tasking platforms that we need to put in place with the combatant commands. If the Space Force can get a data marketplace up and running with commercial vendors, that would allow combatant commands to directly submit their satellite tasks, and any commercial satellite with the capacity can then respond to that request. This takes no small amount of coordination between the commercial sector, the intelligence community, and the Space Force itself, but the interest is there from the Space Force." And they say they're looking to the commercial sector for partnership. Good to know. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (or GAASI) just successfully completed a demonstration of its MQ20 Avenger unmanned aircraft system. In other words, a combat drone, being piloted by human and AI pilot working together, with maneuvers sent to the vehicle over a low Earth orbit (or LEO) connection. The reason this is significant is that this is the first time ever that LEO satellite communication's connections have been used on a combat drone. It's an interesting team up of human and AI using LEO set coms, a human operator used, hands-on throttle and stick controls, which were then sent to the drone via satellite in LEO to the onboard AI pilot, which would then autonomously track and maneuver the drone from that point. Typically, this kind of communication with a combat drone is done via satellites in geo or geosynchronous orbit. And those satellites are a lot further away, so data latency can be an issue. However, because they're so far away, the satellite and the drone can sort of see each other pretty much continuously. LEO satellites don't have the latency issues, but their range of sight, so to speak, is much smaller. So a drone that's moving over large distances very quickly may have to keep acquiring new satellites as it moves. However, with continuing improvements on intra-satellite connectivity, that issue is becoming less of a concern, clearly. In what our show executive producer Brandon Karpf likes to call the "rarely reported ground segment wars," Microsoft and Viasat are now collaborating. Users will now be able to access Viasat's Real-Time Earth ground service via the Microsoft Azure Orbital marketplace. Specifically, five of Viasat's Real-Time Earth sites will be directly connected to Microsoft's Azure cloud. This allows Viasat to scale their operations using Microsoft's managed services, with the goal of giving customers much faster access to much larger caches of data. Some funding new now. According to Space News, Kepler Communications has raised $92 million to start deploying what it's calling the "Kepler Network," which is a constellation of 140 optical data relay satellites, with hopes of deploying in 2024 and coming online in 2025. Kepler is a Canadian small sat operator with 19 satellites currently in Sun-synchronous orbit (or SSO), with two more on the deorbit vehicle, which is currently slated for the Transporter-7 rideshare expected to launch tomorrow. The optical data-relay constellation Kepler has plans for will also be in SSO and will enable real-time and continuous connectivity with satellites in low Earth orbit (or LEO). Slingshot Aerospace says it's helping improve space situational awareness in LEO by adding about 80 more ground-based optical telescopes to its existing network of 150 telescopes. They'll be both adding to existing sites they own and also building out two new sites in the Southern Hemisphere. Operations from these optical telescopes will supplement observations of objects in LEO also being tracked by radar. No word yet from Slingshot on where those two new sites in the Southern Hemisphere will be. You might remember Astra Space got a warning a few weeks ago from NASDAQ, that it needed to either get its minimum stock price over a dollar a share for 10 consecutive business days, or it would get delisted from the stock exchange entirely. Well, a quick update there. They applied for and were granted a six-month extension from NASDAQ. Astra now has until October 2, 2023 to get that stock price up. According to its form 8K, a form that Astra filed earlier this week with the Securities and Exchange Commission (or the SEC), Astra may, "cure the deficiency during the second compliance period by effecting a reverse stock split." And another quick update here on a story from a few weeks ago. Indeed, the failure of JAXA's H3 rocket continues to reverberate in Japan scheduled launch plans. Two missions were supposed a launch from Tanegashima later this month on a H2A rocket, and those would be the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (or XRISM), and the Small Lander for Investigating Moon (or SLIM). But since the H2A uses the same upper stage rocket as the failed H3, and investigations continue into what exactly happened there, the launch has been officially pushed from this month off to August, if not later. Japan's Martian Moons eXploration mission, which is scheduled for an August 2024 launch on a thus far unsuccessful H3 rocket, is also expected to be impacted by delays. Something that might be handy to know: General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (or GA-EMS) says it has completed commissioning its thermal vacuum chamber at its space system development facilities in Centennial, Colorado. And this brings their total to three in-house fully commissioned thermal vacuum chambers. And while we don't normally cover opinion in our news read here, I can't help but weight into this one. The Washington Examiner today published an editorial titled simply, "Keep US space command headquarters in Colorado." The decision being hemmed and hawed over, and for good reason mind you, is whether or not to keep Space Command where it is, at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs, or to move it to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. It seems disruptive to uproot such a big organization under potentially dubious political influence, but there's a lot of space expertise in Huntsville too, to say the least. There are a lot of political and economic factors at play here, not a big surprise. But I'm curious what you think of this clash? You've got to let me know. For the US Space Command, should stay or should it go? Okay, so those are our stories for today. Stay with me for a conversation with T-Minus executive producer, Brandon Karpf, about US Central Command and Space Force Component Command right after this quick break. So I was reviewing a story from Air and Space Forces Magazine, and the headline was "Space Force is an equal partner in CENTCOM." And I have to admit when I was reading through the story, there were a lot of concepts in here that I didn't quite understand, like how can Space Force be part of something but also an equal partner. So I thought I would ask someone who knows a lot about this, and that would be my executive producer, Brandon Karpf. Brandon, can you walk me through just the structure here and how things were -- I know very little about how the military works, so can you explain about how CENTCOM and SPACECENT would work?

>> Brandon Karpf: Yeah, sure. So we're going to get a little bit into kind of how the sausage is made on the military side. You know, when people think about the Department of Defense, they often think about the services, right? You know, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force. And really, the important thing to realize about those organizations is, the Department of the Navy is really all about manning, training, and equipping the naval forces. They don't actually tactically or operationally employ our military forces. So when you think about the Space Force, think about, that is the organization that is manning, training, and equipping our nation's space capabilities and the military space. So when you think about then, okay, how does the actual military operation happen; who in charge; who is taking tactical control, operational control, over those forces; that is what the combatant commands do. And people have heard often of Central Command (CENTCOM)

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah.

>> Brandon Karpf: Mostly because of the last 20 years, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that -- the combatant command is the organization that takes operational and tactical control of the forces that are provided by the services. So what's happening in this article is they're talking specifically about SPACECENT. That is the component command, the service component command, from Space Force that is assigned to support Central Command.

>> Maria Varmazis: Okay, okay. So component command is a very key phrase there. Because I guess my way of thinking was very hierarchical, like we have all these sort of coequal branches, for lack of a better term -- again, I'm sure these are not the correct terms. And that it sort of -- things just sort of went out from there. But there -- it's -- the component part is the part that sort of is clicking in my mind when you say that. So there is sort of a top line directorate, but also there are the components within each command. Am I kind of interpreting that correctly?

>> Brandon Karpf: Yeah, exactly. So you'll have a commander of Central Command, right, that is the four star general or admiral in charge of Central Command. And then within Central Command, you'll have components from all of the services. So you'll have the Navy component, NAVCENT. You'll have the space component, SPACECENT. You know, Army component of Central Command, Air Force component of Central Command. And those are the forces from the services that have been assigned to support the commander of Central Command. Each of those components has a commander. Typically, it's a flag officer. Which means a general or an admiral. In this case with the Space Force, it looks like a colonel. So that is not a flag officer. That's actually fairly unique, and it's kind of showing the, for lack of a better term, the immaturity of SPACECENT, you know, how new it is, the fact that they don't have a flag officer assigned. They probably don't even have enough flag officers to fill those positions, right? It's still a very new command. But it's -- what's fascinating here is it's certainly more akin to like SOUTHCOM, Southern Command, which is historically the smallest of the geographic combatant commands. Typically gets the least resources, mostly because we tend to think there's just not a whole lot happening in Southern Command. Of course, there is a lot happening in Central Command. And so it is a little surprising to see that the Space Force's component's only 30 people, and only three of those people are actually on staff at the headquarters of Central Command, which is of course down in Tampa, Florida.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah. All of Space Force's 10,000 I think, 10,000 strong if that?

>> Brandon Karpf: Yeah, just about.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, that's interesting. So, yeah, at Space Force, the colonel is Colonel Christopher Putman. And how independent would SPACECENT be in this scenario? I mean, are they getting all of their directives from, say, someone higher up, or is it sort of, you guys know what you need to do and you guys just go do it?

>> Brandon Karpf: It's a good question, valid question. When it comes to the employment of those forces and those capabilities, you know, again, keep in mind none of that is happening at the service level; all of that is happening at the combatant command level. The combatant commander is the ultimate decision-maker. So that four star general or flag officer is ultimately the final decision-maker employing those forces. And the way that really works, and, you know, we mentioned, there's three members of SPACECENT on staff at headquarters for Central Command. Those are going to be the people who are supporting the planning and decision-making staff at that strategic level, or really, strategic and operational level of war. And so when you think about the employment of those forces, those planning staff -- that planning staff will get together and they'll say, hey, this is what we're going to prepare to do in the concept of operations, or actually developing an operational plan (an op plan). And they'll sit down and they'll work through the joint planning process to actually plan and integrate the joint force capabilities to achieve whatever the commander's objective is for that operation. Now, that may involve space forces. It may involve cyber forces or land forces or maritime forces. Just it all comes down to achieving the objective of the commander through different courses of action. And so those three people from the Space Force who are on staff there down at headquarters, it all falls on them to actually integrate and employ the capabilities that they bring to the fight for all of Central Command, and actually integrate those into the planning and operational processes of the force. That is a huge job for three people.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, it is.

>> Brandon Karpf: Exactly. Especially when you think about Central Command, right, it's no longer the primary focus for the Department of Defense, right? Our primary focus is Indo-Pacific, INDOPACOM.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yep.

>> Brandon Karpf: But Central Command still has a lot going on, right? You still have, right -- we often think of Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran. But you also have the war in Yemen and you have Syria, a lot of activity is in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean that actually fall under the area of operations of Central Command. So it's a big job. There's a lot of space assets that need to be employed. And those three people have a heavy lift to actually employ and integrate those forces. And ultimately, if they don't have enough, to go back to the Space Force, and say, hey, we don't have enough resources, we need more resources here to support these types of operations and advocate for the, again, the manning, the training, and the equipping of the proper force posture within Central Command.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, that was my next question was sort of on the procurement side. So their job is to, as you said, advocate for what they need. But the procurement is still going to come from Space Force proper, right? It's not going to be coming from in this case SPACECENT? SPACECENT would sort of say, this is what we need but.

>> Brandon Karpf: The component commands for every service, that comes down to the tactical and operational employment of the resources that they have been assigned by the service. So there is no real acquisitions. Things get a little muddy when you talk about special operations command and some of the more unique combatant commands in terms of what they can do for acquisitions, right? SPACECOM has a different acquisition structure than CENTCOM. CENTCOM is not going to be acquiring satellites. That's going to, you know, focus on the acquisition authority from the Space Force, right? Again, that actual military force that has the authorities for manning, training, and equipping the force.

>> Maria Varmazis: This makes a lot more sense to me, Brandon. Thank you so much for walking me through it, because I really need to understand it a lot better. And I think this is helpful for people to understand as well. So thank you so much.

>> Brandon Karpf: Yeah. Well, and it's important to recognize that when we see articles like this that say, the commander says that we are an equal partner, that SPACECENT is an equal partner, that's aspirational, right? It's nice to hear that Central Command is treating them as an equal partner. But there's no doubt about it, when you have a full staff of 30, a headquarters staff of three, when you talk about these other services that have thousands assigned to Central Command, that's just, okay, you might be an equal partner in spirit. But my real question looking at this article is, yeah, but can you actually bring the goods to the table?

>> Maria Varmazis: Resourcing.

>> Brandon Karpf: Are you actually -- exactly. Are you actually bringing in the right resources to the fight at the right time? Do you have the people on staff to integrate your capabilities into the planning process? Which is the whole kit and caboodle, right? That is the whole way that you get forces employed, that you integrate across the joint force. You know, we look at the failures of Russia's mobilization in Ukraine, you know, for their objectives. And that comes down to just PPP. You know, I'm not going to use the first word. But poor planning.

>> Maria Varmazis: I think you can say it. It's okay.

>> Brandon Karpf: Just the piss poor planning on the Russia's part, right? And the secret sauce that the American military brings to bear is our ability to integrate the joint force in operations. And that starts and really stops with the planning process at the combatant command headquarter level. So when I see a staff of three in the Space Force supporting Central Command, that actually makes me pretty concerned. I hope that that staff increases by an order of magnitude in short order to actually bring those capabilities to bear and inform the staff. You have people on that staff who don't know what the Space Force can do; don't know what capabilities they can bring to the fight and the timeliness of those capabilities. You need those specialists from the Space Force to actually bring that to the planning process and communicate to the rest of the commanders, here, this is what we can do to support this fight; this is what we can do to help achieve this objective; and these are the capabilities and resources that we're going to commit to this plan to actually succeed. That's a very important capability. So the planning process and providing the right staff, the right resources to that planning process, is crucial for the success of our military operations.

>> Maria Varmazis: Hmm, that's something to chew on there, for sure. Yeah, I mean, I know that this scaling up of staffing, for lack of better term, is definitely a challenge. I mean, I was thinking, wouldn't technology help with scale there? You know, do you need as many people if you've got something that can potentially have -- with the technology being a force multiplier, do you need as many people literally sitting there? But, yeah, if you need someone to advocate and say, this is what we can do, this is what we can provide, then, yeah, that's not an email. Certainly you need a person there doing that.

>> Brandon Karpf: Right. Wars are won and lost by people. Technology helps, but they're won and lost by people. And oftentimes it starts with the right people at the table at the right time.

>> Maria Varmazis: Well, thank you, Brandon. I really appreciate you walking us through this and for your point of view on this as well. Yeah, this is certainly not my area of expertise at all, so I'm really glad you're here and that you walked us through it. So thank you.

>> Brandon Karpf: Yeah, my pleasure.

>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back. Welcome back. For the Lego fans in your life now, or you if you're a Lego fan, probably you don't need much convincing on this one, but there's a new space themed Lego set coming out. And this one has kind of a retro-futurist artistic take on the classic Space Age. A new Lego IDEAS set allows brick builders in your life to make four really lovely sort of Lego dioramas or 3-D postcards, all of which have some kind of classic space theme to them. One is a meteor shower, another is a rocket launch. There's even one that features planetary rovers. And the fourth one for the interstellar fans in your life is a black hole event horizon over a cornfield. If you're imagining the super intricate to scale Lego sets like an $850, 7,541 piece Millennium Falcon, no, these are not like that. The entire set of the four decorative vignettes are just 688 pieces in all. And each piece is just 14 by 9 centimeters when they're built. They are artistically pretty lovely, especially as a group. And unlike those super complex multi-thousand piece Lego builds, these actually make nice home decor. I'm going to get hate mail for that one. And that's it for T-Minus for April 13, 2023. T-Minus is a production of N2K Networks, your source for strategic workforce intelligence. For links to all of today's stories, check out our show notes at space.n2k.com. Our theme song is by Elliott Peltzman. Mixing is by Elliott Peltzman and Tré Hester. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf. And I'm Maria Varmazis. See you tomorrow.

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