Lockheed opens Colorado Springs lab for space simulations
By WAYNE HEILMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: September 15, 2019
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Lockheed Martin has built a $2 million laboratory at its northern Colorado Springs campus that allows military commands and other customers to test drive how new software and hardware will operate in space.
The Pulsar Guardian lab has been in the works for three years and has been operating on a limited basis since 2017, but it will be in full operation for the first time later this month, said Kurt Nelson, a technical adviser for the lab. He also helps the defense giant design war games that can be conducted in the 5,000-square-foot room in Lockheed's two-building complex in the InterQuest business park.
"We were looking at trying to build out a synthetic space environment where customers could simulate with software and hardware how a satellite operates in space," Nelson said. "If you make a mistake, you're not putting a spacecraft in jeopardy. The space domain doesn't have training equipment; there are no simulators similar to what pilots use for training — until now."
Lockheed opened a similar lab about a year ago at its Waterton Canyon campus in southern Jefferson County, and it's about to open another in Herndon, Va., near Washington, D.C., Nelson said. The company opened a second lab in Colorado because customers in the Colorado Springs area didn't want go through the government hoops to send teams of employees to Denver to access the lab's tools and capabilities.
The lab can hold about 50 people and includes banks of computers, an entire wall of monitors and a series of whiteboards that can be used for a few hours or up to a week to find solutions to some of the toughest problems the military is trying to solve. The lab can use software and hardware from multiple military contracts and outside vendors to determine what works well together and what doesn't, Nelson said. Later this year, the lab will install advanced software that will allow users to visualize and test solutions to space problems.
Lockheed officials declined to disclose which military commands or government agencies have used the lab, but said many of them are from the Colorado Springs area, where both the Air Force and U.S. space commands are based. The lab has been used once or twice a month in the two years it has been under development, sometimes for Lockheed and its subcontractors to develop solutions for space problems the military is trying to solve, Nelson said.
"Most of the problems we are trying to solve are software-related, and we emulate the hardware to see how the software and hardware work together in a more realistic environment," Nelson said. "These problems require tons of computing power and time to solve, and a lab like this hasn't happened until now because the technology had not been available to do it, especially the processing power and cloud-computing architecture."
Many of the military's most difficult space problems stem from challenges Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean space programs pose for the advantage U.S. forces have held in space for decades. Russian and Chinese space programs have offensive capabilities and are developing ways to disable U.S. space systems, according to a February report from the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The labs are an outgrowth of Lockheed's Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory in the Denver area that opened in 2010 to use three-dimensional imaging and virtual reality to help product design and manufacturing teams get space products completed more quickly. The Pulsar labs will extend those capabilities, along with augmented reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning, to customers and partners, said Chris Pettigrew, a Lockheed spokesman in Littleton.
"Air Force Space Command and U.S. Space Command are trying to do things differently in acquiring hardware and software. They are working with a lot more space-focused startups," Pettigrew said. "We have a long history of integrating technology from a variety of vendors as a prime contractor. This is a place where we can work with those startups and figure out how to integrate their technologies to solve space problems."
One example — Lockheed, Ball Aerospace and Kratos Defense & Security Solutions received a $7.2 million contract in July from the Defense Innovation Unit to develop a new Multi-Band, Multi-Mission prototype phased array antenna as part of a broader initiative to modernize the existing Air Force Satellite Control Network. The array will enable multiple satellites to simultaneously connect with a single antenna over multiple frequencies, a significant performance improvement compared with traditional satellite dishes.
"This is a place where we can work with them (Ball and Kratos) to figure out how to do that," Pettigrew said. "The military has changed how they award contracts and we have to change with them. In the past, the customer would develop the requirement and if we won the bid, we would come back a year later with the finished product. The customer may change what they want, and now we can test to see if it works the way intended. That saves money because we can make changes sooner."
While other defense contractors have locations where they can demonstrate new technology, those facilities typically are proprietary facilities used by a single company, Pettigrew said. Pulsar Guardian is the first such lab to allow equipment and software from other companies that is built to operate on the same open-source standard and thus can work together, he said.
"We recognize that the problems our customers have to solve are enormous, and we can't solve every problem ourselves. No one company has the technology to solve every problem, but if we knit those technologies together, we can solve those problems," said Christine Jeseritz, a Lockheed program manager who develops bids the company makes on military and government contracts.
Another example of how the military can use the lab could be working with contractors on how all five military services collect data across ground-based, maritime, airborne, space-based and cyber sources and quickly turn it into useful information for military commanders to make decisions, Pettigrew said. That requires linking multiple data collection platforms to share and use data more effectively, he said.
Lockheed is one of the largest defense contractors in the Colorado Springs area, employing more than 1,200 people at four major locations in units focused on space and rotary and mission systems.
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