UAS lessons could drive satellite defense system

Space Development Agency director learns how UND can assist with national space defense

Derek Tournear (center), director of the Space Defense Agency, visited UND’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory on Wednesday. Pablo de León, Space Studies department chair (left) briefed Tournear and U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer on research projects in the lab. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

To defend the United States from space threats, Derek Tournear, director of the federal Space Development Agency, wants a global network of satellites in place by 2026, which is what brought him to the University of North Dakota on Wednesday.

Rather than fielding space systems in traditional cycles spanning 10 to 15 years, he thinks in terms of the 18-month cycles typically associated with aviation systems. During his visit to UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences on Wednesday, Tournear was upbeat about the potential role the University and the surrounding unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) ecosystem could play in developing a national space defense system.

“I’m really excited to see universities that lean into the practical aspects that are needed to drive defense forward, drive the country’s economy forward,” he said. “I think this is an exciting time to see how that can come together.”

After hearing Tournear’s presentation on the Space Development Agency’s mission and priorities, UND President Andrew Armacost commented, “To see this aggressive charter is really impressive. I know all the minds in here are turning about how UND might be able to contribute to those basic ideas that you’re hoping for solutions on. I truly appreciate the vision; it’s incredible.”

Derek Tournear, who leads the Space Defense Agency, met with UND officials on Wednesday to discuss ways to assist Tournear’s agency in fielding a spaced-based satellite defense system. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Established in March 2019, SDA is an independent federal agency that operates under the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering.

Disrupting the system

“We’re set up not to make sure we can do the best technology, but realistically, we’re looking at just getting things fielded as rapidly as possible,” Tournear explained. “Our official motto is ‘Semper Citius,’ which means ‘always faster.’ The unofficial motto we use all the time is: ‘Better is the enemy of good enough.’ We’re actually enabled to be a disrupter outside the bureaucracy.  “

With Tournear’s visit, U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., brought his fourth high-level federal official to UND in just over a year. The goal was to see how UND might assist SDA in the agency’s mission to rapidly develop a satellite system that detects, tracks, targets and counters spaced-based threats to national security.

“The Space Development Agency was really set up to facilitate that nimbleness, to facilitate that process, not just for the Space Force, but for space in general,” Cramer said. “That’s really Derek’s job: to work with all the various agencies to make sure we do things in a way that’s nimble and fast – that’s disruptive and innovative.”

What Tournear found compelling about UND and nearby entities such as the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, the Grand Sky commercial UAS park, the Grand Forks Air Force Base and defense contractors General Atomics and Northrop Grumman were the parallels between UAS and satellites.

From the left during a morning meeting in Robin Hall are UND President Andy Armacost, SDA director Derek Tournear, U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer, Cramer’s aid Colby Kuhns and Brian Tande, dean of the College of Engineering & Mines. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Satellites as UAS

“We’re at a point where UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and satellites are not only becoming ubiquitous, but they’re merging,” Tournear explained. “Ten or 20 years ago, satellites were extremely large. We launched them, and that was it.

“You’d never think of using the same processes – let alone components – that you would in an air system that you would on a satellite,” he noted. “But now, not only have aircraft gotten smaller and more capable because of a lot of electronics packed in with more capabilities, satellites have done the same thing.”

Tournear said that with the explosion of commercially launched satellites, it’s now possible to use aircraft components in satellites and fly them as if they were UAS. But one of his challenges is to disrupt the processes that typically cause Department of Defense procurement to take years instead of months.

“That’s one of the things I’m trying to push: stop thinking about space as space, and think about it from the air side and how you can apply that to different space aspects,” Tournear said. “That’s a way that will enable people to do systems engineering and design in the future. I’m excited to hear about everything that’s going on here. That’s a good area where there’s a lot of influence that’s coming out of this university.”

Ryan Adams, Director of UND’s School of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, was one of several faculty members who briefed Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear during Tournear’s visit on Wednesday. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Tournear heard several short presentations from UND faculty on engineering, computer sciences, aerospace, space studies and autonomous systems. John Mihelich, Vice President of Research & Economic Development, described UND as the perfect-sized university to focus on the type of UAS and space research Tournear described.

“Our research has become really strong in the areas of space and aerospace sciences,” he said. “We have a long history with UAS and an ecosystem that the John D. Odegard School has helped foster.”

Well-rounded graduates

Elizabeth Bjerke, Aviation Professor and Associate Aerospace Dean, described the interdisciplinary nature of the school’s research, as well as how it produces graduates who are well versed in other areas, such as aviation policy and law.

“Sometimes we’ll take an engineering student and couple them with space classes to make sure they’re going to have that knowledge and insight on the policy side and the social side to be successful,” she said. “Our undergraduates are ready to lead the nation on these problems.”

This prompted Tournear to remark, “That’s excellent. I don’t hear too many people talking about that focus of making sure students have a broad background and are well-rounded. That’s the only way to really be successful in different aspects.”

Armacost also emphasized UND’s strengths in the area of workforce development for national space defense.

“This highlights what we see as a contribution to the Space Force and U.S. Space Command,” he said. “It’s not only developing technology and ideas to be fielded, but also on the workforce development side. We can help give the Space Force people with the right degrees and backgrounds to be successful.”