How Digital Engineering Strengthens Space Systems

As a trusted space partner to the U.S. government, Booz Allen helps clients modernize capabilities for today’s greatest space challenges: 

  • Weaponization of space: The U.S. must stay ahead of adversaries threatening space systems critical to our nation’s security, commerce, and way of life.
  • Addressing climate change: Space-based earth observation is essential to research.
  • Congestion: Tracking and protecting space assets is critical as satellite constellations grow exponentially.

Why MBSE Is Critical for Space Systems Engineering

To realize the Department of Defense's (DOD) digital engineering vision, space organizations have been tackling the challenge of implementing a digital workflow for space assets. MBSE will revolutionize defense development across the spectrum, but it’s especially applicable to space systems. Here are some of the key reasons:

  • Once a satellite is launched, it’s beyond the physical reach of teams tasked with its management and repair. MBSE allows technologists to create a virtual replica called a digital twin to test vulnerabilities, predict performance, and plan software upgrades for space assets in orbit. 
  • Space has become a warfighting domain, requiring security upgrades to existing satellites and strengthened space cyber defense. MBSE offers a cost-effective way to mitigate threats.
  • Space systems traditionally have taken years—often more than a decade—to develop. Digital engineering dramatically reduces the time, speeding up some key processes from months to minutes.
  • Space is becoming increasingly crowded. The number of satellites in orbit is expected to increase to more than 60,000 by 2030. MBSE is actively being used to better integrate and architect the vast network of sensors and associated data, and enabling infrastructure to optimize more timely, precise tracking of objects in space.

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Putting the Model in the Middle

“Simply put, MBSE is next-generation engineering. It’s model-based from concept throughout the lifecycle of the system,” says John Silvas, Booz Allen’s lead digital engineer. “The fundamentals of systems engineering remain the same. The difference is, we apply a model-in-the-middle mindset from the start.”

Rather than creating a model as a deliverable along the way, Booz Allen’s systems engineering work prioritizes the creation and continual evolution of a single authoritative relational database that is integrated into the program management office’s greater ecosystem. “That digital thread ensures a single source of truth,” John says. 

A Government-Owned Functional Reference Architecture

This digital model serves as a government-owned reference architecture. “The government has a vision of owning its tech stack so it can own its innovation,” says Chief Engineer Leonard Brownlow, who advances the firm’s MBSE work for space projects. “We’re helping bring it to life with a holistic approach that puts DOD in control.” 

This unified architecture also allows for easy interoperability with multiple systems that need to interface with it, a foundational capability to further complex capabilities like space domain awareness. It also allows us to adapt our approach for each engagement. This allows us to balance the efficiency and security of a holistic methodology with flexibility for varied program priorities, as well as organizations’ technical maturity relative to the program lifecycle. 

“What’s more, we can re-use reference models in future versions,” Leonard adds. “We can give the client a head start on future projects since we’re building on existing functionality and requirements, which can be easily upgraded to support new acquisitions.” Leveraging previous work also lowers costs and security risks.

What doesn’t change is the centrality of the reference model, which ensures an orderly and collaborative process. “The model remains center stage for all decisions,” says John. For example, the model serves as a reference point for:

  • Stakeholders overseeing the process from a high-level perspective
  • Program managers assessing and directing progress
  • Vendors, who are granted “dotted-line” access to elements related to their work
  • Analysts performing budget change impacts, technology comparisons, trade studies, etc.

Delivering Plug-and-Play Digital Engineering Tools 

Owning the reference architecture is critical, but controlling it is just as essential. “We offer visualization tools via an extensible infrastructure that’s readily deployable. It allows stakeholders to plug-and-play new technology without needing to invest time and money in building the environment themselves,” John explains.

We have extensive experience reengineering proprietary systems, helping DOD break vendor lock via open standards-based solutions. We’ve used this knowledge to create reusable modules and incorporate lessons learned, streamlining processes and speeding schedules. 

Integrating MBSE for Smarter, Faster Development

We blend MBSE into the project flow, applying digital engineering as we help the client transition to a cloud environment, incorporate government-hosted tools, and apply open data platforms to allow for continual evolution as priorities and threats change. 

Unlike defense contractors who have traditionally engineered systems on separate tracks, our teams are digital-first. This allows us to incorporate all elements—such as cyber control mappings, transitioning to a cloud environment,  and applying artificial intelligence—all with an open-system approach.

Once the ecosystem is created, DOD can invite partners to work in that environment, with full traceability and immediate effect. “It’s all anchored back to that digital thread, so you can see the ripple effects on other parts of the overall architecture,” John says. 

Realize Digital Twin Advantages

Suppose a satellite’s remote sensor has failed during a mission-essential flyover. A backup sensor fails at the same time, indicating a possible attack. What happens next? You can assess probabilities and strategies in advance with a digital twin, an exact replica of the original linked by the digital thread. The two share data and information flows, so one can provide insights on the other.

The digital thread supplies the foundation. “A digital thread allows for modeling and simulation to occur early in the process,” says Leonard. “That reference architecture gives us a conceptual digital twin.” 

A conceptual digital twin is a prototype containing the designs, analyses, and processes that will inform development of the full virtual product that connects to the physical digital twin. This conceptual replica speeds progress: “We can begin modeling behaviors early on, while the data and information feeds are still in development,” says Leonard.

Once we integrate the digital and physical systems, establishing a bidirectional connection, the client can realize the full value of a digital twin. Now the changes and updates can be tested in the model and then pushed in real time to the operational physical system—whether it’s still in development or already launched and functioning on orbit.

“You can use a digital twin to advance any part of the lifecycle faster and with more confidence,” says Leonard. “For example, you can simulate behaviors in the conceptual phase, test a new system with more precision before it’s launched, and measure the impact of an upcoming upgrade after launch.” 

For satellites already on orbit, a digital twin is a game-changing way to measure essential attributes such as resiliency. For example, the digital replica we created for GPS Block IIR measured cyber vulnerabilities, allowing for modernization of a system launched before space cyber defense was top of mind.

Spin Up a Twin: The Benefits of Moving Fast

“We can spin up to a mature, functioning digital twin state quickly,” John explains. Our digital-first perspective, as well as our experience creating reference architectures on defense systems to help the government break vendor lock, has given us insights on how to create efficiencies without compromising security. 

We offer experience over hundreds of projects, offering: 

And we apply lessons learned to speed success, delivering benefits like:

  • Intelligent space cyber defense
  • Improved resilience with decreased risk
  • Increased productivity and return on investment
  • Capability for rapid, continual upgrades


Learn more about how we use next-generation digital engineering to accelerate secure, resilient data solutions and integrated space systems—working from the mission up.

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