In this Q&A with Jay Patel, vice president, Remote Sensing Programs at Northrop Grumman, we discuss: resilient payloads, the vital interplay between upgradeable ground stations and payloads, and the company’s work with AFRL to beam solar power to austere Earth environments for military and civilian applications.
Breaking Defense: Describe the Remote Sensing Programs (RSP) technology offerings, and how these systems are connected.
Patel: With decades of experience in space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), Northrop Grumman Remote Sensing Programs is a premier developer of ISR mission systems payloads. Leveraging transformative digital capabilities together with advanced lightweight deployable structures offers compatibility with modern mission architectures and maximizes flexibility and interoperability. We are pioneering trusted mission expertise in space-based radar, radio frequency (RF) sensing, resiliency systems and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR).
Most of my career has been on the payload side, where I thought that the goal was to get these exquisite, complex machines up in space to do their job. Then later in my career when I was asked to work on the ground side, I fully realized that ground systems are just as mission critical as the payload with command and control, mission management, and tasking to enable full-mission capability.
When I gained insight into both payloads and ground systems, I understood why it’s critical that both of those elements work well together.
In today’s fast-paced threat environment, our customers don’t have the luxury of coming up with a different solution every time a new threat is introduced. They need to expand and leverage what they have. You do that with the ground and tasking side where you can update our exquisite machines with additional waveforms, software, or algorithms to quickly modify the mission.
Breaking Defense: What warfighter missions are your technology capabilities associated with?
Patel: The name of the game is getting the right information to the right people at the right time so they can act on what they’ve learned. I’ll break down each one of those separately.
The first piece is the right information. It’s more valuable to use different payload sensors, take that data, fuse it together so you get better than the sum of the parts and a better idea of what’s going on for folks to make decisions.
The second piece is getting the information to the right people. As we know, threats, conflicts, and areas of importance in our world are not always easily accessible. There’s a lot going on in the middle of an ocean, you may be out in the desert, or you may be on a mountainous border. There’s a lot of terrain that makes it difficult for us to get the right information to the right people.
And then there’s getting that information to somebody in a timely manner. We used to do that in days. Analysts would pour through data, find something meaningful, task the satellite again to do another operation based on what they found. We don’t have days anymore. We need it done in minutes and seconds in some cases.
To address that, we’re offering to help with onboard processing opportunities on our payloads. They can look at the data, analyze it, and make decisions autonomously, eliminating the long lead time cycle that I just described.
With a constellation, satellites or payloads can pass off to a neighboring satellite as they fly by. Again, you minimize the gaps between collecting and disseminating that information.
Breaking Defense: You’re working with the Air Force Research Lab on a program to develop space-based solar power collection and transmission capabilities. The program is called the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research Project (SSPIDR), and if it’s pronounced “spider” then that’s one of the better acronyms I’ve heard. Can you bring me up-to-date on the program?
Patel: We do call it “spider,” and I agree with you, it’s a fantastic acronym for a program and one of my favorites. It’s going to allow us to not only provide power to our government customers in defense, but will also allow us to give others energy in places that it’s hard to get to.
With SSPIDR, imagine a large solar array in space that can collect the sunlight, convert it to energy, and then bring it down to where it’s needed. Remember earlier when I talked about regions of the world that are not readily accessible? Imagine troops in a remote region that need infrastructure in place to accomplish their mission. It takes a lot of dollars, time, and energy to get that infrastructure there. And it puts these troops at risk. What this system will allow us to do is to beam energy to places where it’s needed, providing constant, consistent, and logistically agile power.
That also includes the government’s natural disaster support when the power grid is knocked out. It takes a while to get that back, and with SSPIDR we can, perhaps, provide emergency power service to help the personnel in that area while the infrastructure is being restored.
As you can imagine, a lot of different, critical technology elements need to be figured out and solved for this system and mission to work. The team together with our partners at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) have done an excellent job of figuring out what those technology elements are. They’ve attacked them with a passion to get them solved.
I’m happy to share that all of those critical technology elements for the first demonstration prototype have been solved. We are now putting them together so we can function as a system, and our design is complete. We are in the assembly and test phase and have started to integrate and test our flight prototype unit.
We’re going to be launching our prototype, which is a smaller-scale version of the final operational system and will demonstrate the key capabilities. The next step after that will be to scale it to where we need it to be to support the mission that I mentioned earlier.
Breaking Defense: I expect that one of the main challenges is the transmission aspect, creating some sort of transmission tower in space.
Patel: Correct. The way we’re going to do the transmission is radio frequency, RF. The beauty of RF is that it allows us to steer energy quickly to where it needs to go without the ground infrastructure. It’s a simple command to point that energy from one location to another, and you can get power fast.
Breaking Defense: Final thoughts?
Patel: With rapid advancements in speed and agility and close collaboration with commercial partners and utilizing Northrop Grumman’s end-to-end space capabilities, we have demonstrated success in providing the right solution for the mission — from the exquisite to quick-react, short-term, affordable small sats to accomplish missions.
We’ve been given problems that we can solve with a wider array of solutions at our disposal than we’ve ever had before. Our business will continue to grow because we can offer more digitally transformative solutions to our traditional customers and to people who are starting to understand what the commercial world of space can provide them. It’s a fantastic time to be part of the mission and we have an incredible workforce available to support all mission needs.