Major space surveillance sensors still rely on outdated CAVENet computer system

The Lockheed Martin constructed the Space Fence location in the Marshall Islands. (Lockheed Martin)

SPACE SYMPOSIUM: As Space Force moves forward in updating the U.S. military’s failing computer systems to monitor the skies, at least two key sensor systems — the Space Fence radar and Space Situational Awareness program satellites geosynchronous (GSSAP) – still rely on old technology.

The fact that two of the most modern and sophisticated sensors in Space Command’s space domain awareness (SDA) toolkit have to rely on the creaky CAVENet computer system, developed in the 2000s, for analysis and data sharing is testament to how slow and difficult this long-standing effort has been.

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The Department of Defense has been working for two decades to replace and improve this increasingly dysfunctional hardware and software needed to provide SDA capability – an effort that has come to a halt after a workaround over the years. (think tape and glue) but for the moment no definitive solution. So even when new and improved technologies come online, operators are forced to depend on this old data processing computing.

One of these newer technologies, the Space Fence ground-based radar, came online in 2020 and can see very small objects down to the size of a cherry in low Earth orbit (although the only radar installation currently in use cannot continuously track such small objects). Built by Lockheed Martin to the tune of $1.5 billion, it regularly tracks some 26,000 satellites and space debris.

However, this ability to keep tabs on a large number of objects has made it difficult for Space Command to integrate the large amount of data it provides into its older processing systems.

Space Fence cannot be directly linked to the Space Defense Operations Center (SPADOC) computer system and software from the 1980s which is used to both load SSN sensors and populate the accessible space object catalog to the public.

Instead, its data is fed into CAVENet, an offline computer system for classified analysis that dates back to the early 2000s. On CAVENet, analysts can run software, called Astrodynamics Support Workstation (ASW), which allows more accurate collision analysis and threat assessments for national security users.

“CAVENet was originally designed as an analytics platform allowing users to analyze/manipulate data in ways that the official system (SPADOC) could not. It’s just a local area network for UNIX computers running a set of mostly custom software,” said Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, who has followed the SDA problem in depth for a decade.

“But over time, CAVENet started to undertake operational missions because SPADOC could not do it,” including running ASW and tasking SSN sensors, he added. “It was easier to add new features to CAVENet than to upgrade or replace SPADOC.”

With the availability of new hardware and software developed under the Space C2 program – primarily Palantir’s Warp Core software and L3Harris’ ATLAS hardware and software to replace SPADOC – Space Command will be able to integrate Space Fence to create a common image of the space environment for satellite operators.

But they still need CAVENet to do it – which already in the mid-2000s suffered from a problem finding space parts due to their obsolescence [PDF] — at least for the foreseeable future.

“The 18th Space Control Squadron (SPCS) has the capability to integrate Space Fence data through the Non-Traditional Data Preprocessor (NDPP). Both ATLAS and Warp Core can consume Space Fence data. The NDPP deposits Space Fence data into CAVENet, and Warp Core can pull it from CAVENet and send it to ATLAS,” an SSC official explained.

It’s a similar story for the GSSAP. Space Force in 2022 launched two more GSSAP satellites, built by Northrop Grumman, bringing the constellation of “neighborhood watch” satellites to six. The GSSAP’s capabilities are classified, but they are able to maneuver to close in on other satellites of interest to monitor activity – and have done so on several occasions vis-à-vis Chinese and Russian birds.

GSSAP data is transmitted to the 18th Space Control Squadron via the “Red LAN Tactical Data Distribution Node for Space SDA sensors with direct connections to Multi-Classification Level Operations Centers”, said the head of the SSC. Red LAN puts the data into CAVENet and Warp Core can extract it, but in the future “direct streams” from Red LAN to Warp Core “are planned”.

Indeed, for the moment, it is not known if Space Force will one day be able to abandon CAVENet entirely.

“It’s complicated and it depends on who you ask, apparently. After the dismantling of SPADOC, the objective is to continue to migrate the capability to ATLAS. So theoretically CAVENet could disappear,” an industry source said. “The operators say they intend CAVENet to remain an analytics platform,” the source added, but the Space C2 program office is likely to “officially say CAVENet is going.”

Space Systems Command did not respond to a question from Breaking Defense about which system(s) will replace CAVENet, and when.

Gordon K. Morehouse