Sharing spy satellite data with civilian users would be ‘game changer,’ space experts say

The Gazette, By Tom Roeder  Published: April 17, 2015 

A treasure trove of Air Force satellite data that can be used to spot wildfires, monitor climate conditions and do hundreds of other tasks could emerge from a curtain of government secrecy.

Air Force Space Command leaders are working on plans to share data from Space-Based Infrared System Satellites controlled by airmen at Aurora’s Buckley Air Force Base and Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. The effort is being led by Space Command’s Remote Sensing Directorate in Los Angeles, which also is looking at how to use the information for military intelligence.

“Those discussions are just beginning,” Col. Mike Guetlein, who heads the new directorate, said at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

The civilian world is working on how the infrared pictures could be used, with Colorado Springs software firm Braxton Technologies leading the pack.

“It will be a game changer,” said James Flemer, who is working on the Braxton infrared project.

At the symposium, which drew a record number of participants to The Broadmoor by the time it ended Thursday, possible release of the infrared imagery created a buzz.

Civilian environmental monitoring firms are no strangers to infrared imagery. Aircraft, drones and passing NASA satellites give glimpses of the potential. But what the Air Force can bring is different – a constant, staring view from geosynchronous orbit.

The pictures show heat spotted by satellites that use cameras to stare at the globe to track missile launches. When rockets rise atop a tower of flame, alerts go out to the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command.

But the satellites can likely see much more than rockets. The military won’t say how sensitive the satellites cameras might be, but it’s theoretically possible they could see the heat of an idling truck engine or even a lit cigarette.

Flemer said no matter the quality, the infrared images from the Air Force could spur technology leaps similar to the last time top-secret space technology was unleashed in the civilian sphere.

“I am working with guys who keep using the GPS reference,” Flemer said, referring to the Global Positioning System.

GPS, developed in the 1970s and first used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, was designed for warfare, giving troops in the desert and bombers in flight an accurate fix on their positions. But the navigation and timing signals from space, accurate to a billionth of a second, are now used in more minivans than Humvees.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order laying the groundwork for widespread civilian use of the navigation and timing signals. Now, GPS is used to synchronize data on the Internet and mobile phones and provide accurate timestamps for global banking.

It’s estimated there are 3.2 billion GPS-equipped devices on the planet.

Some ideas for infrared imagery could revolutionize firefighting.

Engineers envision firefighters getting the imagery from space on their smartphones, allowing them to quickly identify and stamp out wildfires before they grow.

There are huge hurdles in the way of that vision, though. Getting infrared pictures to civilians means overcoming secrecy for what is essentially the product of a spy satellite.

Space Command boss Gen. John Hyten described the process that’s in place for using the satellite imagery to fight fires.

“The information goes to Northern Command – that information already gets to where it needs to go through people who are cleared to see that information,” he said.

Braxton is working on a piece of software that would allow wide and rapid distribution of the imagery to anyone who needs it. Called Dimmer, it is designed to automatically dumb down the classified Air Force imagery and scrub it clean of national secrets.

It’s part of a suite of programs designed to distribute the infrared imagery with varying levels of secrecy, depending on who’s cleared for what information.

But such software would have to be backed by policy changes at the highest levels of the Pentagon.

Still, if the infrared pictures can make the jump to civilian user, backers say it could change how everyday people see the world.

“There are a lot of opportunities, for sure,” Flemer said.

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter @xroederx

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