With Kestrel Eye satellite on deck for deployment, Army gears up for direct-tasking exercises

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army’s experimental Kestrel Eye is scheduled to deploy Oct. 24 from the International Space Station to begin a two-year mission testing how the small satellite can speed the delivery of time-sensitive overhead imagery to soldiers on the ground, according to a senior Army official. 

The mission will influence whether the Army pushes ahead with its own smallsat Earth-observation constellation independent of what commercial operators are doing.

Thomas Webber, director of Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Technical Center, told SpaceNews the speed that soldiers can obtain satellite imagery today is substantially slower than desired.

“It could be hours, weeks or never that certain critical information is made available,” he said Oct. 10 at the Association of the United States Army conference here. “What we are looking at with Kestrel Eye, the intent is to be able to have … the ability to task and collect an image and download that image at the same pass. So now we are talking minutes to get information to the battlefield commander.”

Kestrel Eye is a 50-kilogram satellite built by Adcole Maryland Aerospace capable of 1.5-meter imaging. A SpaceX Dragon capsule carried the satellite to the space station during a resupply mission that launched Aug. 14.

Webber said the Army leveraged commercial off-the-shelf technology for the satellite, but still views Army needs as substantially differentiated from the commercial sector.

“It’s not so much the telescope that’s better or the capability that’s better, it’s the speed at which that information gets taskable from a handheld device that a soldier has, to getting that image back to that soldier,” he said.

To enable soldiers to task a satellite from the battlefield and directly download the requested imagery, the Army modified an inflatable antenna from GATR Technologies to track low-Earth orbit spacecraft, Webber said. Paired with a laptop, the antenna can command and control Kestrel Eye, making it easy to use in the field, he said.

Webber said Kestrel Eye also endured a high number of cyber vulnerability tests to protect the satellite from spoofing or other cyber threats.

For the first few months in space, Kestrel Eye will go through an in-orbit checkout, Webber said. After completion, he said the Army will use the satellite for a joint military utility assessment “that will go through about five different scenarios that they deemed important.”

Each scenario will take several weeks, likely five to six, he said. After those, the remainder of the satellite’s lifespan will be used to further show how a Kestrel Eye-type capability can support Army warfighting efforts.

Webber said the information gained from Kestrel Eye will help form the parameters for a larger constellation, should the Army choose to build one.

“What your requirements will be will drive how many satellites you would need, what different inclinations they would need to be in and what orbital planes, because it will be dependent upon where you want to look and how often you want revisit time,” he said.

The Kestrel Eye awaiting deployment from the International Space Station is the second version of the satellite. The Army never launched the first version, Webber said, because the satellite’s structural design required a dedicated, vertical launch, and the Army was unable to secure one.

Webber said the Army doesn’t plan to launch the first Kestrel Eye at this point, but might harvest the camera for a future mission.