Space-based military applications are becoming increasingly important as orbital international competition and capabilities increase. Complex machining and turnkey manufacturing are essential to enabling collaboration between the private sector and US government to compete in the modern space race.
In the past decade, the realm of space has been revolutionized. Technologies such as reusable rocket engines, high complexity machining techniques, increasingly fuel efficient launch techniques, and new space-age materials have thrusted us into a new age of space exploration. With these innovations, comes a new set of national security challenges. New space players, such as China and India, are looking to make a foothold in Earth’s orbit with satellites and space stations of their own, and this will inherently result in conflict at various scales. America must find a way to protect its assets in space and secure a foothold to continue to explore new frontiers in the future and continue to enjoy current technologies enabled by space.
International trends in military space
Space militarization is not a new concept. The Cold War era space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was the first instance of this concept. Both nations raced to achieve superior spaceflight capability, and this period resulted in a leap in mankind’s technological capabilities without resulting in direct conflict. The realm of space was used by America to establish the Global Positioning System (GPS) and to conduct reconnaissance on the Soviet Union. The Soviets utilized space in a comparable manner by developing GLONASS (a technology similar to GPS), and by performing their own surveillance on the United States. From these basic beginnings of the military’s use of space, much evolution and development has occurred.
On March 27th, 2019, India announced that they had successfully tested an anti-satellite weapons system. It struck and destroyed an Indian Microsat-R satellite in a test flight that lasted about half a minute. The satellite in question had a surface area of two square meters and was flying at an altitude of 282 kilometers (925,197 feet) . Similarly, China fired on and destroyed one of its own satellites in 2007 demonstrating its ability to use ASAT, or anti-satellite, weapons. By doing so, they showed the world that the nation has a capable and rapidly growing space program . In the event of a conflict with China or India, anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) could wreak havoc on our military’s SATCOM capabilities as well impact our strategic reconnaissance assets. This could seriously hinder military efforts and be a major threat to national security.
China has also established a Strategic Support Force which focuses in part on the development of the nation’s space program . This in combination with China’s Tiangong space station, which is currently housing a crew of three astronauts, makes them a major threat to the United States. Iran also launched its first military satellite into low Earth orbit and announced its military space program on April 22, 2020, introducing another major player in extraterrestrial military operations . All these recent events clearly show that the era of U.S. and Russian space superiority is over. The United States must take serious steps to protect its assets in space.
US response to growing space threats
In response to these growing threats, the United States Space Force was established on December 20, 2019. This is a distinct branch of the armed services organized under the Air Force and its primary mission is to maintain, protect, and expand the fleet of advanced military satellites that form the backbone of U.S. global military operations . The United States have also been developing a space-based sensor system to detect and locate hypersonic missiles targeted at United States Satellites. There has also been research into a space-based ballistic missile interceptor and a directed energy weapon primarily used for intercepting incoming missiles . This is crucial due to the nature of hypersonic missiles. Because these weapons move at five times the speed of sound and have the capability to maneuver in a manner like a cruise missile for the entire duration of its flight, early detection and termination of these weapons is critical.
Considering China and Russia’s space-based offensive capabilities, low earth orbit military satellite constellations have become an attractive defense strategy. Traditional military satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of 600 to 12,000 miles and are extremely expensive to replace. Low earth orbit satellite constellations, on the other hand, show potential to get military hardware into space at a much lower cost. Constellations are also more difficult to eliminate considering they are made up of a large fleet of satellites (often into the hundreds of individual units). An enemy would have to destroy copious quantities of these satellites to render military surveillance and communications useless. In contrast, it would only take a small number of attacks to eliminate our current military orbital infrastructure. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and Lockheed Martin are currently developing this technology under Project Blackjack . To achieve our nation’s goals in space we must progress our current technologies to meet the challenge of intercepting ASATs and hypersonic missiles, but we cannot neglect manufacturing new satellites and weapon defense systems in a precise, reliable, adaptable, and cost-effective manner. This is where Primus Aerospace’s expertise in turnkey manufacturing can be an asset to any defense contractor.
Manufacturing for defense space applications
Traditionally, manufacturers only oversee a small portion of a component’s fabrication because they specialize in that given area. Primus is unique because we handle programming, machining, assembly, quality assurance, and hand finishing all in-house. This allows our aerospace machine shop to be flexible to design changes, which are extremely common in the process of developing modern technologies for contract manufacturing. We also have a wealth of experience in manufacturing for defense projects, including weapons systems, missiles, rockets, aerostructures, hydraulics, actuators, landing gears, space systems, and satellites. We regularly work with aerospace primes to develop manufacturing systems that support the development of prototypes and rate production for sensitive programs. This experience will allow us to transition smoothly into the production of space specific military components.
Because of the development of military satellite constellations, our nation’s capacity for manufacturing aerospace grade components must also increase. This takes a combination of talented engineers, CNC programmers, machinists, and quality inspectors that few aerospace machine shops employ. Primus can produce high complexity, tight tolerance parts at scale and regularly works on ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) projects. In addition to this, we have working relationships with value added providers that support our manufacturing capacity with services such as plating, passivation, heat treatment, and anodization. Because of these factors, Primus Aerospace would be an asset to Project Blackjack and future programs like it.
Due to the nature of aerospace, parts must be as light as possible to save on cost. This requires minimalist design with structure in high stress areas, excellent surface finish to avoid fatigue failure due to stress concentration, and weight saving cut-outs in less critical areas. Because of Primus Aerospace’s precision machining capabilities, these design features can become a physical reality. In addition to all these factors, complicated aerospace parts must be made in rapid succession to replace damaged equipment in the hazardous and debris ridden environment that satellites inhabit. Primus Aerospace’s manufacturing prowess and advanced machinery allows for rate production of high complexity parts that can conquer the challenges that space militarization imposes on manufacturing.
One 5-axis CNC Machine on our shop floor that highlights our manufacturing capabilities is our DMG Mori DMU 125 P duoBLOCK. This machine can perform milling and turning in a single setup with part rotational speeds up to 500 RPM. The DMU also has 453 tool pockets, maximum X and Y travels of 49.2 inches, a maximum Z travel of 39.4 inches, a maximum workpiece diameter of 49.2 inches, and a maximum workpiece height of 63 inches. This machine also has exceptional accuracy due to a completely water-cooled feed drive and the incorporation of a spindle growth system. The system measures the thermal and centrifugal force extension of the spindle and provides feedback to the CNC to compensate for this positional error. These capabilities allow Primus to manufacture large, extremely complex parts with limited fixturing on a single machine .
It has come extremely clear to the defense community that the threat of an attack on United States space infrastructure is imminent. We must take steps as a nation to mitigate this risk. This can be done by increasing funding to the Air Force and Space Force, increasing public awareness of the issue, developing new technologies to strengthen our defenses against ASATs and hypersonic platforms, and increasing our aerospace manufacturing capabilities. It is a matter of national defense that can potentially save the lives of the men and women in our armed forces. Primus Aerospace is proud to be directly involved in the retooling of our space infrastructure.