With many nations viewing outer space as the next battleground, intelligence gathering becomes an essential component of maintaining friendly space operations. As world governments build up their presence outside of Earth’s atmosphere, a group of coders has hacked its way into keeping track of all those orbiting objects, both known and unknown.
Named after the super-secretive intelligence agency from Star Trek, the very real Section 31 is a team of military coders that develop sophisticated software for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Command and Control Program Office, nicknamed Kobayashi Maru (another allusion to Star Trek referring to an unwinnable battle scenario that, according to the show’s lore, Captain Kirk hacks to defeat).
“Warfare is a multi-domain endeavor encompassing all five operational domains – land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace,” Stan Sawicki, Section 31’s Chief Experience Officer, told The Debrief in an interview. “To be successful in any one domain, our nation needs to be successful in all domains.”
Science fiction references aside, Kobayashi Maru and the coders from Section 31 keep their eyes on space and ensure that whatever is up there, they know about it.
BACKGROUND: Section 31 and Space Domain Awareness
“You can ask some people and they will say space is already a battlefield, similar to cyber. Right now, the value of space is the amount of data that can be transferred through space or created (sensors) and transferred from space, but all space-faring parties have relatively equal access to these data and capabilities,” Dr. Travis Blake, a former Senior Manager at Lockheed Martin who now runs the Physical Sciences division at Kairos Ventures and an expert in Space Domain Awareness, told The Debrief.
Up to this point, Earth’s orbit has remained peaceful, though also a tense place. Various nations work together on the International Space Station. There are countless satellites from a whole host of countries tracking everything from weather events to the location of your car. Information beams between objects in orbit and the planet containing everything from highly sensitive defense data to your Tik Tok videos. This uneasy peace won’t last forever, according to Blake.
“That will change when there is a valuable resource found that cannot be shared, and therefore can be controlled by a single party. That is when the real battlefield will start,” Blake explained. “Seems that has been the case on land, sea, and air, and will be true in space. As soon as someone wants something that someone else has that is seen as required for national sovereignty and advancement above peer countries, fights usually start.”
In December 2019, the United States formally founded the U.S. Space Force as an independent branch of the armed services. While some have questioned the need for an 8th military branch, the overall mission is to be proactive in that arena for any possible national security issues. The Space Force would argue its mission is to keep space safe and ensure that it remains that way.
“Every modern economy and military relies heavily on data transferred through and from space. Keeping these systems safe and operational is crucial for not only a viable national defense but, maybe more importantly, for a viable economy given how much space assets touch all parts,” Blake explained.
“Space Domain Awareness is the ‘identification, characterization, and understanding of any factor, passive or active, associated with the space domain that could affect space operations and thereby the security, safety, economy or environment of our nation,'” Sawicki explained. In simple terms, if it is in Earth’s orbit, Kobayashi Maru wants to know about it.
The problem is the space domain’s size and scope and the fact that Earth’s orbit is littered with a lot of stuff. According to the European Space Agency, over 29,000 objects 10 cm or larger are orbiting the Earth. This ranges from space junk to satellites. Keeping track of all that is difficult, and it used to take hours to sort out which object belonged to which country or where a specific piece of debris was headed next. Needing a faster response time to gather better intelligence on a given object and the software to do it effectively, the Space Command and Control Program Office brought in Palantir, a Silicon Valley based data-analytics software company, and a team of military coders to build out a more effective system.
“The application replaced an inefficient and manually-intensive legacy system and now provides a real-time data display of high-interest information pertaining to the global space community such as upcoming space launches, potential satellite conjunctions, atmospheric re-entries of objects in space, sensor status, and other pertinent information,” stated Maj. Matt Holland of the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles in May 2020 press release.
Clearly, fans of science fiction and video games, the team of in-house coders chose to go by Section 31 and labeled their new tracking system Metroid, a reference to Nintendo’s classic sci-fi game franchise.
ANALYSIS: What is Metroid?
Also known as Space Board, Metroid is a “High Interest Event Tracker” that “monitors, tracks, and displays potential high-interest events of space assets providing warfighters a clear picture for Space Command and Control (C2) and space domain awareness (SDA).”
“Space Board reduces the time required to perform a daily task from three hours to just fifteen minutes for just one of our users,” Sawicki told The Debrief. He went on to say that the Metroid system is used by over 1000 users in the U.S. government and other partners, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and ally governments like the U.K., Canada, and Australia.
Section 31 also developed a follow-up math and physics platform to run alongside Metroid called Vue. Using data from Space Track, Vue helps Metroid offer both “predictive and current” space intelligence. The system can locate, identify, monitor, and track objects in orbit, offering Kobayashi Maru and various other agencies, what Sawicki calls “a complete operational picture.”
Other sources The Debrief spoke to concerning Metroid and Vue remained cagey about disclosing more about the technology. Living up to its secretive Trekker nature, Section 31 would not say more about how it dealt with objects tracked in space, especially objects of unknown origin.
“I believe that the systems that are helping monitor the space domain in general and provide the needed space for space traffic management are essential for national security—much like our ATC [air traffic control] system,” Blake told The Debrief. Unknown objects, much like unidentified aircraft, require the owner to claim ownership.
“An unknown object in space is traced backward in time using orbit prediction methods to try and determine a point of origin that matches another object that was in the point in space at the same time in the past—usually a known space launch. It could also be another spacecraft in a break-up or separation event. If there is no verifiable match, then the object remains unknown until someone claims it,” Blake stated.
Citing the example of unlicensed and unknown autonomous drones that often fly into controlled airspace, unidentified objects pose a similar issue in space. “It is a real problem without good solutions if nations are not willing to share in the global necessity for safe spaceflight,” Blake concluded.
OUTLOOK: Is Section 31 Essential to A Future in Space?
In September of 2020, the House Armed Services Committee released the Future of Defense Task Force Report. Written by a bipartisan committee that set out to establish a clear roadmap for the future of U.S. national security, the report highlighted that in order “to remain competitive, the United States must prioritize the development of emerging technologies over fielding and maintaining legacy systems.” The focus for the future of warfighting should be on cyberwarfare, space, and artificial intelligence. The report goes on to solidify that the U.S. should continue to build relationships with contractors, especially those in the tech sector and Silicon Valley, but a big push must be made to bring a lot of that work in-house.
The report cited another group of coders with the U.S. Air Force called Kessel Run.
“Kessel Run is actually a hybrid acquisition and operations unit that began a little more than four years ago,” Bruce Katz, the Public Affairs Specialist for Kessel Run, told The Debrief in an interview.
Katz explained that Kessel Run was born out of an Air Force project trying to modernize the analog system of managing military aircraft and mid-air refueling logistics, which, according to Katz, was done by hand with Post-It notes, Excel spreadsheets, and whiteboards. Outsourcing the work to a contractor was a dismal failure, so they pivoted, and the Air Force brought in some coding personnel. Kessel Run (named after the smuggling route made famous by Han Solo in Star Wars) was born shortly thereafter. Six months later, the coders fielded their new system, and the Air Force now relies on it. Kessel Run continues to develop software to replace legacy systems.
Katz explained that military coding teams like Kessel Run and Section 31 are altering the landscape of defense.
“Software and the IT sector are going to be what accelerates the Air Force in decision making, in data, and in its ability to respond to ‘near-peer’ and other threats. That’s the future,” Katz stated. “Software is going to lead to the greatest evolution or change in the way that we posture and fight in war or conflict.”
Looking into the future, asking how warfare and defense, especially in outer space, will change seems to bring us deep into the realm of science fiction. Katz pointed out that before 1910, no one had ever thought the skies would one day become a battlefield. Airplanes were once science fiction, and from today’s warfighting perspective, 1910 might as well be ancient history.
As our species continues to look to space for future scientific and technological discoveries, the unfortunate reality is that we may also need to look at it as a potential warzone. When objects end up in Earth’s orbit, little strings of code written by the Space Force’s Section 31 are what keep us secure and safe.
“Since the advent of the Information Age, code and software play an increasingly important role within the warfighting domains,” Section 31’s Sawicki says. “Our nation needs to continue to emphasize STEM degrees and career paths to ensure we remain competitive academically, commercially, and militarily now, and in the future.”