COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – From reusable rocket engines to hypersonic spaceplanes, the Pentagon is looking to leverage a recent boom in commercial space innovation for military applications.

But not all missions can be outsourced, according to one top military official.

Space Command Chief Gen. John Hyten laid out the case for the Defense Department's continued dominance of the space arena here at the Space Foundation’s annual National Space Symposium. The US Air Force will control the vast space surveillance network for the foreseeable future, he emphasized during a Thursday media briefing.

The Air Force is currently managing space traffic for the entire world by default, analyzing data and maneuvering assets in orbit to make sure they don't collide with each other or with free-floating debris. The Joint Functional Component Command for Space and the 14th Air Force is responsible for tracking about 23,000 objects in space each day, and sends warnings to operators around the globe to prevent accidents.

DoD officials and members of Congress, most notably Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., have urged the Air Force in recent months to outsource some of the responsibility for space traffic management and situational awareness to a civil or commercial entity. The command and control piece of space trafficking — in other words, the conjunction reporting and collision avoidance — can be done commercially for a lower cost, Bridenstine argues.

Bridenstine's American Space Renaissance Act, officially unveiled this week at the Space Symposium, proposes that the Federal Aviation Administration's office of commercial space transportation take over that burden, leveraging unclassified information from Strategic Command's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) as well as commercial data.

"I would prefer that I take the airmen today that are doing basically collision avoidance and orbital analysis across the board for everybody else, and if somebody else could do that and I could focus those airmen on other missions, I'd be much happier," Hyten said Thursday. "We shouldn't be doing flight safety for everybody in the world, we should be focused on missions for the Department of Defense."

But the Pentagon wants to keep certain information out of the public domain. Much of that sensitive data is gathered via satellite and analyzed alongside unclassified communications by the JSPOC at Vanderberg Air Force Base, California.

"Here's the catch — the catch is that the United States Air Force and the United States military are going to operate the space surveillance network from now as long as you can foresee," Hyten said. "We do that mission for space control, we don't do that mission for space traffic management, and we're going to do that mission for space control as long as you can see into the future."

Hyten supports a path forward where the JSPOC provides data to the FAA so the civil agency can do the collision avoidance, he said. But "we have to make sure that we end up where we don't have competing catalogues," he said.

"If all you are talking about is tracking rocks, because actually in order to do flight safety you don't need to know what the thing is, you just need to know where it is and where is it moving," Hyten said.  "So if you can just say, 'Here are the rocks, do your collision avoidance,' then that's okay."

As robust and innovative as the modern commercial space sector is, industry alone will never be able to build certain capabilities, according to Hyten. For example, the $914 million Space Fence will increase the objects the DoD tracks in space by a factor of 10, he said.

The Pentagon will examine opportunities to work with commercial companies that are producing high volumes of small, nimble spacecraft as part of the new Space Enterprise Vision rolled out earlier this week, Hyten said Thursday. Investing in a distributed space architecture made up of hundreds or thousands of miniature systems, instead of just a few expensive, large satellites, could potentially reduce costs and enhance resilience against hostiles, experts contend.

But while these small commercial satellites will play a role in certain missions, they are limited in capability, Hyten said Thursday. Miniature spacecraft open many doors, but they will never be able to do the nuclear-hardened command and control mission, for instance, he said.

"People keep thinking that small satellites are the solution to lots of problems," Hyten said. "The problem with small satellites is if you want to communicate with an 18-inch disk on a Humvee in the middle of the desert someplace and you want to do it from 22,300 miles away, physics tells you that you have to have a giant antenna with a lot of power."


Twitter: @laraseligman

More In Space Symposium