Enter the Hunter Satellites Preparing for Space War

A satellite above earth

True Anomaly's satellites (not pictured) will spy on each other, using thrusters, radar, and multi-spectral cameras to approach within a few hundred meters.Photograph: Getty Images

Feb 1, 2023 7:00 AM

Enter the Hunter Satellites Preparing for Space War

True Anomaly, a startup backed by US senator JD Vance’s VC firm, plans to launch prototype pursuit satellites on a SpaceX flight later this year.

Former US Air Force major Even “Jolly” Rogers is worried about a space war. “Conflict exists on a continuum that begins with competition and ultimately leads into full-scale conflict like what you’re seeing in Ukraine,” he says. The US, he adds, is already “in active competition with Russia and China for freedom of action and dominance of the space domain. And it’s evolving very quickly.”

So on January 26 last year, the former US Air Force major incorporated True Anomaly, Inc to “solve the most challenging orbital warfare problems for the US Space Force,” he later tweeted.

According to a recent filing with the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC), True Anomaly is now gearing up for its first orbital mission. In October, True Anomaly hopes to launch two Jackal “orbital pursuit” spacecraft aboard a SpaceX rocket to low earth orbit. The Jackals will not house guns, warheads, or laser blasters, but they will be capable of rendezvous proximity operations (RPO)—the ability to maneuver close to other satellites and train a battery of sensors upon them. This could reveal their rivals’ surveillance and weapons systems, or help intercept communications.

In their first mission, dubbed Demo-1, the Jackals will merely spy on each other, using thrusters, radar, and multi-spectral cameras to approach within a few hundred meters. If that goes well, Rogers envisages deploying thousands of autonomous spacecraft in service of the US military, controlled by a team of human operators and AI “to pursue adversaries wherever they fly, and to provide the tools of accountability.”

Those tools start with understanding what technologies America’s adversaries are deploying in space. “But an active defense is going to be required,” says Rogers, now True Anomaly’s CEO. “If you take the job of defense and protection of the domain seriously, you have to have the ability to do the joint functions of maneuver and fires.” Although the military often uses “fires” to mean kinetic weapons like guns and shells, in the space context, it usually refers to jamming, electronic warfare, and cyberattacks.

Nothing on True Anomaly’s website suggests that it is developing its own offensive weapons. However, in a series of posts last summer, Rogers tweeted: “Tactically disabling enemy spacecraft can be the difference between the loss of an entire Carrier Strike Group or its survival … And there are many ways to destroy spacecraft that don’t ruin the environment. After all, they are just floating computers.”

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RPO itself is nothing new. In a report last September, the Secure World Foundation, a private foundation promoting cooperative solutions in space, detailed dozens of military RPO operations in geostationary and low earth orbits since the Cold War. Most of these involve American, Russian, or Chinese spacecraft sidling up to each other’s satellites, presumably to see what they look like or to eavesdrop on their communications.

There are also emerging peaceful uses of RPO, such as space tugs that can repair or relocate failed satellites, or remove dangerous space junk. The Secure World Foundation helps run an organization called Confers that is setting voluntary technical standards for commercial RPO. True Anomaly is one of around 60 Confers members. “If we ever want to do things like cleaning up space debris, we have to develop these technologies,” says Brian Weeden, the foundation’s director of planning. However, True Anomaly is the first RPO startup explicitly focusing on the military market, he says.

Rogers’s last job for the government was leading teams within US Space Command that planned how and when to deploy defensive and offensive military space systems. He and his cofounders, Dan Brunski, Tom Nichols, and Kyle Zakrzewski, also former Air Force and Space Force officers, “knew the problem better than anybody else, dealt with the limitations of technology on a day-to-day basis, and were frustrated with those limitations,” Rogers says. Rather than wait for a large industrial defense contractor to get around to it, they decided to solve the problem themselves. The deployment of space weapons by America's rivals, he says, “is much closer than most people would think.”

According to US Security Exchange Commission filings, True Anomaly has already raised over $23 million from investors. This includes a December investment from Narya, a venture capital firm cofounded by US senator JD Vance, a MAGA-leaning Ohio Republican. (Rogers says that True Anomaly itself has no political affiliation.)

The company recently signed a lease on a 35,000-square-foot factory in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. As well as manufacturing the Jackal satellites, True Anomaly engineers are designing a cloud-based control system to integrate autonomous agents and human operators, using commercial game engines like Unity to build interactive real-time applications and developing high-fidelity physics software to help the Jackals maneuver in space. True Anomaly has already applied for a trademark covering, among other things, hardware and software for “orbital space-to-space imagery, rendezvous proximity, and target acquisition systems.”

“What is different about True Anomaly is the way it seems to be presenting its satellite as more of a pursuit system, than an imaging or an intelligence gathering system,” says Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “This does concern me because it could cause unintentional escalation. Especially with the founder’s Air Force background, it might be read by our adversaries as a military-directed company that was starting to pursue this capability.”

The company’s first challenge could be keeping its own floating computers intact. “Cooperative RPO is already hard,” says Johnson. “You can see that from the demonstrations by Astroscale and Northrop with their servicing satellites, which were years in the planning.” A cooperative RPO mission by NASA in 2005 called DART failed when the spacecraft malfunctioned, crashed into its target satellite, and was destroyed.

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Pursuit missions of adversarial satellites are likely to be much riskier still, says Johnson: “You don’t have the same data coming from the other satellite. You maybe don’t have the diagrams and diagnostics of what the satellite looks like so that you know what you’re about to encounter.”

Any collision in orbit can generate many thousands of pieces of space junk, each of which could damage other satellites, creating yet more debris. Researchers worry about increasing orbital debris ultimately triggering a catastrophic cascade known as the Kessler Syndrome. Rogers says that collision avoidance is a possibility “that we track very closely and aggressively. We’re committed to acting responsibly and sustainably in the space domain.”

Rogers himself is no stranger to risk. Before starting True Anomaly, he founded and led a crypto hedge fund called Phobos Capital. And prior to that, he incorporated a company called 3720 to 1, Inc—a reference to the odds of Han Solo successfully navigating an asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back, according to C-3PO.

Whether Rogers’ pursuit of a satellite venture is more likely to succeed, or just another piece of gung-ho science fiction, should be a lot clearer after SpaceX’s rocket launches in October.

Update 3:10 pm ET, February 1, 2023: Clarified language around the use of “fires,” which, in a military space context, historically does not typically refer to kinetic weapons.

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Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with particular interests in robotics, space, surveillance, and transportation. He’s on Twitter at @meharris for tips and story leads. DM for Signal number for sensitive/encrypted messaging.
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