WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Air Force readies its experimental TacSat-3 satellite for a scheduled launch in October, it is preparing to transfer technology to industry to develop a new satellite platform for the TacSat-5 mission, tentatively slated for liftoff around 2011 aboard a Minotaur-4 rocket.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, is managing the procurement of the TacSat-5 satellite bus, which will be based on the Plug-and-Play satellite testbed developed in-house by the facility. During an industry day hosted by AFRL Aug. 5, TacSat-5 program manager Neal Peck said the lab will release a broad area announcement for the spacecraft in September and will award multiple study contracts in December worth between $200,000 and $500,000. One contractor will be selected in summer 2009 to develop the spacecraft under a contract worth $20 million to $25 million, according to briefing slides from the meeting.
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles is managing the procurement of TacSat-5’s Self-Awareness Space Situational Awareness payload, an experimental suite of sensors meant to demonstrate proximity awareness of the space around a satellite. The competition to build the $30 million payload currently is under way and a contractor will be selected near the end of the year, said Peter Wegner, director of the Operationally Responsive Space office, which has oversight responsibility for the TacSat satellites.
Meanwhile, TacSat-3 completed vibration testing July 26 and during August will undergo environmental testing in preparation for its late-October launch aboard a Minotaur rocket, the Air Force said.
TacSat-5 and TacSat-3 are part of a series of experimental satellites intended to demonstrate technologies and processes for fielding space capabilities quickly as requirements emerge. The $80 million TacSat-3 mission is funded primarily by AFRL with contributions from the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Air and Space Intelligence Center and the Operationally Responsive Space office.
The satellite was scheduled to launch in June, but testing last summer raised concerns about the payload’s ability to withstand the rough ride aboard the Minotaur-1 rocket, which is based in part on excess strategic missile hardware. The solution was to make structural upgrades to the Advanced Responsive Tactically Effective Military Imaging Spectrometer (ARTEMIS) built by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif., Thom Davis, AFRL’s TacSat-3 program manager, said in an Aug. 5 interview.
The satellite will begin 10 days of thermal vacuum testing Aug. 13 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. It then will receive upgraded flight software and be shipped Sept. 20 to NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore for launch, Davis said.
ARTEMIS, built at a cost of $20 million, is a hyperspectral sensor capable of determining the composition of a ground object by interpreting the wavelength of light it reflects, even through obstructions like forest canopies, Davis said.
The U.S. military typically uses this kind of sensor on airborne platforms; TacSat-3 will help determine if spacebornehyperspectral sensors can be used operationally. Having a space-based capability is important because it could be used in areas where airspace is contested or denied.
The most comparable capability now on orbit is the Hyperion sensor on NASA’s experimental EO-1 satellite, according to Davis. It is unclear whether there is anything comparable in the classified realm.
In testing the utility of the data returned by the ARTEMIS sensor, AFRL will work with active duty soldiers. A soldier on the ground will request an image and a ground station in theater will send the request directly to the satellite. The satellite will collect data of the area of interest, process the information on orbit, and send a text message back to the soldier who requested it, all within eight minutes.
“For a tank, you would see metal, oil, paint and rubber,” Davis said. “And if the object is a decoy made of balsa wood, the satellite will tell you that too.”
TacSat-4 will be the next in the series to launch following TacSat-3. Being procured by the Naval Research Laboratory and equipped with a communications payload, TacSat-4 is on schedule to launch in September 2009 aboard a Minotaur-4 rocket.
Only one TacSat mission, TacSat-2, has been launched to date. That spacecraft, which carried a variety of experimental sensors and capabilities, completed its yearlong mission in December.
TacSat-2 leapfrogged the first satellite built in the series, TacSat-1, which was delayed repeatedly due to problems associated with its unproven Falcon 1 launcher. The launch was canceled a year ago, after the TacSat-2 demonstration eroded its relevance.
Pentagon documents show a decision on whether to upgrade TacSat-1’s payload for a revised mission, called TacSat-1A, was supposed to be made in January. Options still are being considered, but that decision has not yet been made, and there currently is no plan to launch TacSat-1, Wegner said.