Leading U.S. space officials made a stop in Grand Forks on Friday, May 21, continuing a trend of frequent visits to the region to discuss the future of unmanned aerial systems research for institutions like UND, Grand Forks Air Force Base and drone business park Grand Sky. On Friday’s visit, those officials announced a program to establish a new low-Earth orbit satellite mission in Grand Forks.

The mission was announced by U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who accompanied Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear to a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. hangar at Grand Sky. The SDA has awarded the company $6 million to implement the mission to link its MQ-9 Reaper drones to an upcoming satellite system with lasers, instead of radio transmitters. The mission also extends to the 319th Reconnaissance Wing’s Global Hawk mission at Grand Forks Air Force Base, and the 119th Wing’s Reaper mission in Fargo.

For Hoeven, the mission is the next step in continuing to develop the region’s UAS ecosystem, now some 15 years in the making. Hoeven and Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., have been supportive for the development of that ecosystem at the federal level, and with the U.S. Air Force and Space Force.

“This award to General Atomics is the beginning of a new chapter for Grand Forks and Fargo, where we are working to combine our state’s world-leading UAS ecosystem with the SDA’s new low-Earth orbit satellite operations,” Hoeven said. “We appreciate the SDA’s continued commitment to establishing a satellite operations center in Grand Forks, which we are working to fund through the annual defense appropriations legislation. At the same time, Dr. Tournear’s visit was an opportunity to showcase the tremendous work occurring at Grand Sky and help advance the potential for future partnerships.”

The mission will begin in late June, with the launch of two General Atomics-manufactured satellites into low orbit. They will be monitored, and if necessary, controlled from the Grand Sky location. The satellites will use low-power lasers to establish communication with one another, and from there to unmanned aerial vehicles in flight. Those UAVs will then be able to transmit large amounts of sensor data to Grand Sky in a much more secure and speedy manner than through the radio frequencies now in use.

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After the initial launch, more satellites will be rolled out until an orbital network is established. Lasers are the key to supporting intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions, as they can’t be easily jammed and deliver needed data more efficiently.

“SDA's mission is speed, delivery (and) agility,” Tournear said. “That means that we're going to deliver capabilities to the warfighter as rapidly as possible, because capabilities that are on the shelf being delivered at the time that warfighter needs them are no good.”

The mission also lends itself to opportunities at UND. Speaking at a lunch meeting before the mission's announcement, Tournear said UND could work on algorithms related to the satellite’s operation and control. Today’s visit marks Tournear’s second to the region. He previously visited UND in October, with Cramer, to discuss research opportunities.

UND President Andrew Armacost, also in attendance on Friday, said he was encouraged by what the mission means for UND’s role in the relationship. While that role still needs to be fleshed out, Armacost said departments across the campus will be able to contribute, including aerospace, the College of Engineering and Mines, space studies, the College of Arts and Sciences and more.

“When you think about that intersection of all those pieces, it points nicely to preparing our students to do work like this, to serve in ground stations, to serve as engineers, to develop autonomous systems that will allow these types of great capabilities,” Armacost said. “Both on the education side and also on the research side, we foresee great possibilities. The discussions are alive and well, and we're eager to hear what direction this heads.”

While the satellite mission has opportunities for commercial use, it is primarily a military move to get information to those who need it, and faster. Once fully established, the orbital network will be completely replaced every two years, to keep the nation ahead of others.

“From the standpoint of a policymaker, I will tell you we're ahead,” Hoeven said. “The key is we've got to maintain that for the defense of our nation, for the security of our men and women in uniform. We have to maintain the technological advantage.”