16 June 2004
Military eyes in the skies
By Janene Scully
Lompoc Record (California)


The distance between satellites in space and battlegrounds on Earth could be shrinking because of an Internet-based research and development program unveiled Tuesday.

Vandenberg Air Force Base is serving as the demonstration site for the Virtual Mission Operations Center, a prototype of a portable system that aims to deliver satellite data more readily to U.S. troops around the world.

"We want a new way of doing business in space," said Capt. Brett Conner, scientific and technical evaluations chief for the Air Force Space Battlelab based in Colorado. "And that is to use the Internet protocols we use every day to command space assets and receive space effects from those assets."

Once fully deployed, the system would allow U.S. warfighters around the world to "dial in" on the World Wide Web to determine the real-time status of roads, bridges and enemy troops.

With General Dynamics as the lead contractor and involvement from researchers of the Air Force, Army and NASA, they launched the Virtual Mission Operations Center. The various agencies put about $5 million into the system.

The VMOC, essentially computers with a routine Internet browser, use a secure Internet connection to access satellite data. That allowed an Army sergeant at Vandenberg on Tuesday to order up a space-based map of Indianapolis, for example.

"We all have kids who go out and play on the Internet and they pull pictures down, so what's astounding about this? What's astounding about this is, with the same ease of use, these guys are able to task satellite platforms and get the information requirements - the pictures that they need," said Steve Groves from the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command Battle Lab. "It's not high tech at the user end."

Rather than needing to know latitude and longitude, military users can simply use basic computer technology to draw a box on a computer screen and obtain the detailed satellite data.

"One of the other really great features about this system is the 'smart pull,'" said Army Staff Sgt. Dale Shoenfelt. "The soldier on the ground, the airman, can decide what they need and go out there and retrieve it, instead of being dumped (with) tons of information they have to sort through."

A British Earth-observing satellite launched last year from the former Soviet Union carries an American experiment, a Cisco computer mini-router that is about 4 inches by 4 inches, making sure that only authorized users and computers can access the system.

For this week's test, a tent set up on Vandenberg hosts computers that can pull down data from satellites orbiting some 400 miles above Earth. If the desired map isn't readily available, the VMOC will schedule the satellite to collect the image.

"Last Wednesday we made history for the first time by being in a standard Web environment talking to a commercial mobile router in space," Conner said. "That was completely new. That shows a different way of doing business than what we're doing now in space systems."

Nearby, a Humvee was equipped with a laptop computer to show the versatility of the portable system.

"It's all encrypted wireless link," said Shoenfelt. "This allows the solder to be mobile around a fixed location and not be tied by wires."

Typically, the vehicle could travel about 20 miles, although the distance depends on buildings, trees and other features of terrain that would block a signal.

"It's a very exciting new technology ... It's getting information directly into the hands of the warfighter," said Capt. Randall Bradford from the 14th Air Force.

For the demonstration, members of the Air Force Information Warfare Center watched from a computer set up an arm's distance away. In a real situation, they could monitor from anywhere in the world to ensure against hackers.

With a proven system, the next step would be to study how the VMOC would work with specific satellites and have the Pentagon's purchasing arm get VMOC for troops around the world.

"For us, as proof of concept, this is the key day ... ," Conner said. "We're showing this works. We've shown its capability. We have the feedback from the users now. It's very exciting."


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