Letter | Small Satellites, Big Performance
I fully endorse the SpaceNews op-ed “Making the Small End Bigger” [Commentary, Oct. 29, page 19]. The piece did an excellent job of making the business case that small satellites are “big” when it comes to quick and affordable access to space in challenging economic times.
As a manufacturer of small spacecraft, our experience at ATK has been that small spacecraft buses consistently demonstrate a cost-effective and multimission approach to accomplishing critical mission objectives on orbit.
As mentioned in the op-ed by Daniel N. Baker and Thomas Zurbuchen, five identical THEMIS probes were designed and built by ATK for a two-year NASA magnetospheric constellation mission. All five probes were launched on a single launch vehicle in February 2007. After meeting all of the mission science requirements, two of the THEMIS probes were flown to the Moon to support lunar science objectives. This summer, the remaining three probes were repositioned to enhance initial data collection for NASA’s Van Allen Probe mission, which was launched in August. These same three THEMIS probes will be on call to NASA’s flagship Magnetospheric Multiscale mission after launch in late 2014. All of these applications demonstrate the effective use of small spacecraft and constellation architectures with NASA’s limited space science budget.
Another example of a small civil spacecraft with multiple purposes is NASA’s Earth Observing (EO)-1, which launched as a dual-manifested payload in November 2000. EO-1 has supported such notable NASA flagship missions as the Earth Observing System, Landsat-7 and the Landsat Data Continuity Mission. Due to its longevity and operational fortitude, EO-1 has been called into necessary duty for monitoring natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake and Western U.S. wildfires. EO-1 continues to support NASA missions after 12 years of orbital operations.
The U.S. Department of Defense also has found benefits with small satellites. TacSat-3 carried the Raytheon Artemis hyperspectral sensor for unique intelligence gathering. The paradigm-busting Operationally Responsive Space Office’s ORS-1 craft placed the U-2 aircraft-based UTAS Syers electro-optical/infrared sensor onto a small satellite directly controlled by Central Command to support warfighting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These successful programs prompted the Air Force to begin serious efforts towards “disaggregating” their traditional missions, including weather and GPS, into more resilient constellations that include small satellites.
Clearly, small spacecraft have demonstrated flexibility and capability in science and national security missions often far beyond the initial requirements, and well support the op-ed writers’ contention that big things can come from small packages.
The writer is vice president of strategy and business development for ATK.