Prototype Bus for DARPA’s SeeMe Project Passes Atmospheric Flight Test

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WASHINGTON — Engineers from Millennium Space Systems have successfully tested the platform, or bus, for a low-cost imaging satellite as part of a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project, according to an Oct. 15 press release from the company.

The flight of a prototype bus was part of the Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) project, which has been targeted for termination by the Senate Armed Services Committee. The program is intended to provide imagery directly to troops in the field from a constellation in low Earth orbit.

In January, Millennium Space Systems of Torrance, Calif., announced it had won a $1.91 million contract to develop designs and production plans for six prototype and 24 operational SeeMe satellites. 

This prototype cube-shaped bus, measuring 270 centimeters on each side, can accommodate heavier payloads than standard cubesats, Mike Scardera, Millennium’s SeeMe project manager, said in a release.

For the test, the bus was attached to high-altitude balloon and included a telescope as well as new digital camera technology developed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. 

“The detailed images we retrieved clearly demonstrate Lawrence Livermore’s unique optics design is well suited for this size spacecraft, to provide high quality space remote sensing,” Scardera said in the release.

Also during the 90-minute flight, engineers were able to test the satellite’s mobile command and control function.

The test comes with the SeeMe program at an apparent crossroads. 

DARPA requested $10.5 million for 2014 for the project, significantly less than the $15.5 million the agency requested for 2013.

But in its version of the 2014 defense spending bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended “program termination.”

The House Appropriations Committee did not mention the SeeMe program in its version of the spending bill. 

According to budget documents, DARPA hopes to complete six prototype SeeMe satellites in 2014 to verify that they could be built within 90 days with no prepurchased parts. 

Millennium plans to sell the basic SeeMe platforms for approximately $500,000 each, according to the release. The ability to deliver each bus within about 90 days of order is part of its appeal, the company said.

Jason Kim, a spokesman for the company, could not answer questions about the program before press time.

“These breakthroughs in price and delivery schedule will create new business models in space, enabling ultra-low-cost constellation missions,” Laura White, Millennium’s director of business operations, said in the release.

DARPA expects to complete demonstrations of prototype hardware and software for the SeeMe satellites and hand-held data reception devices in 2014.

The SeeMe satellites are expected to take advantage of another DARPA program, the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA), to reach orbit. That program would launch payloads weighing less than about 50 kilograms into orbit from an aircraft, with a target price tag of less than $1 million per launch. 

Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Virgin Galactic are developing ALASA launch concepts under contracts awarded about a year ago, and DARPA expects to down-select to one or two for flight demonstrations that would take place in 2015 or 2016.

 

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