Army’s imaging satellite up and running, but its future is TBD

The Army experiment is being watched by the small satellite industry as a bellwether of where the military might be headed with this technology.

Updated March 1 with new information from AdCole Maryland

WASHINGTON — How valuable is it for troops in the field to have their own dedicated source of satellite imagery and other space-based intelligence? That is a question officials hope to answer in upcoming military exercises where commanders will have an opportunity to test the Army’s newly deployed Kestrel Eye microsatellite.

The Kestrel Eye Block IIM was sent into orbit in October from the International Space Station. ““The satellite is a Defense Department flight experiment and is now on orbit undergoing checkout,” said Dan Harkins, marketing manager at Adcole Maryland Aerospace, the satellite manufacturer.

“We expect some images in the next few weeks,” Harkins said.

Kestrel Eye is a project led by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Alabama. The Defense Department’s Space Test Program sponsored the satellite launch and deployment.

SMDC spokesman Cecil Longino told SpaceNews that the 53kg satellite continues to undergo “on-orbit verification, validation and testing in preparation for late spring operational demonstrations with U.S. Pacific Command.”

After a test period, SMDC “will continue to look for opportunities to demonstrate Kestrel Eye during Army exercises and potentially in support of crisis or contingency operations throughout the life of the spacecraft,” Longino said.

The experiment is being watched by companies in the small satellite industry as a bellwether of where the military might be headed with this technology. Kestrel Eye is small but larger than the average tiny cubesat, designed to provide rapid imaging. A production unit would cost about $2 million.

Harkins noted that the small satellite boom is being fueled by cubesats, and argued that tiny spacecraft “just don’t have the room for sophisticated payloads.” Most cubesats fall in the 2U to 4U range, whereas Kestrel is more than twice as tall as a 27U cubesat — or 38cm x 38cm x 96cm. The Kestrel was built on the Adcole Maryland MagicBus platform

The company hopes Army commanders will find the imaging spacecraft valuable as an asset they can manage from the field. Kestrel Eye is the first on-orbit demonstration of a Defense Department satellite “that may someday provide enhanced situational awareness to users on the ground through direct communications with tactical satellites under theater control,” Harkins said. “While we do not have a constellation of these in orbit yet, it was built with this in mind,” he added. The Army has not made a long-term commitment to the program, however. “We expect we will eventually complete a full constellation but until that funding comes through, you never know.”

Harkins said company engineers were able to communicate with Kestrel Eye on the first available pass less than four hours after deployment of the satellite on October 24. “When the team established contact with the vehicle, they found it in excellent condition with a nearly fully charged battery, controlled attitude rates, and healthy communications links.”

SMDC officials said the upcoming exercises should help tactical commanders at the brigade level or lower understand how they could control the entire imagery process from end-to-end, from the tasking of the satellite to the dissemination of the data.

The small satellite system could be more responsive than traditional imaging capabilities, according to SMDC. Soldiers could access 1.5-meter resolution satellite imagery within minutes.

Kestrel Eye was launched Aug. 14 as a payload aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as part of an International Space Station cargo resupply mission. It is orbiting 310 miles above Earth and is expected to operate for less than two years.