Army space project a now-or-never moment for low-cost military satellites

by
The Army's Kestrel Eye microsatellite holds the promise of providing tactical imagery to soldiers on the ground.

WASHINGTON — It’s been years in the making. A very small, low cost, visible imagery satellite that soldiers in the field will be able to control, giving them access to real-time intelligence.

The U.S. Army’s Kestrel Eye microsatellite was deployed into space from the International Space Station and activated Tuesday at 05:45 am EST.

If all goes as planned, the 110-pound spacecraft could become a catalyst for broader adoption of small satellites for military missions.

The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Alabama, is leading the effort. SMDC spokesman Cecil Longino said Kestrel Eye will undergo “stabilization and technical checkout processes” for the next eight weeks. Next will be an “independent user evaluation” to be led by U.S. Pacific Command, Longino told SpaceNews.

“Kestrel Eye is a technology demonstrator, but it holds the promise of providing tactical imagery to the soldier on the ground, and to do it responsively, persistently and reliably,” John London III, the command’s space and strategic systems directorate chief engineer said Wednesday in an Army news release. He noted that, for the first time, tactical commanders at the brigade level or lower would be empowered to control the entire imagery process from end-to-end, from the tasking of the satellite to the dissemination of the data.

The small satellite capability is significant because it would be far more responsive than traditional systems. Soldiers could access 1.5-meter resolution satellite imagery within minutes.

“It is the validation of an idea we had 11 years ago that space data does not have to be expensive or only available to a few senior leaders,” London stated. “Kestrel Eye will demonstrate how tactical imagery can be made available to individual soldiers in the field, rapidly and inexpensively.”

Officially named Kestrel Eye IIM, the microsatellite was launched Aug. 14 as a payload aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, as part of an International Space Station cargo resupply mission. It is deployed about 310 miles above Earth and is expected to stay in orbit for about a year.